Interestingly, the article emphasizes several factors aside from his formidable intellect that are responsible for his success as a scientist: curiosity, openness, extraversion, ambition, drive ...
NYTimes: ... He was so good that he was chosen for the American team in the 1974 Mathematics Olympiad. To prepare, the team spent a summer training at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
This was the first time the United States had entered the competition, and the coaches were afraid the team would be decimated by entrants from Communist countries. (Indeed, the Soviet Union placed first, but the Americans came in second, just ahead of Hungary, which was known for its mathematics talent.)
Dr. Zeitz was Dr. Lander’s roommate that summer. The two recall being the only team members who did not come from affluent suburban families, and the only ones who did not have fathers. But Eric stood out for other reasons.
“He was outgoing,” Dr. Zeitz recalled. “He was, compared to the rest of us, definitely more ambitious. He was enthusiastic about everything. And he had a real charisma.” Team members decided that Dr. Lander was the only one among them whom they could imagine becoming a United States senator one day.
At first, though, it looked as if the young mathematician would follow a traditional academic path. He went to Princeton, majoring in mathematics but also indulging a passion for writing. He took a course in narrative nonfiction with the author John McPhee and wrote for the campus newspaper.
He graduated as valedictorian at age 20, won a Rhodes scholarship, went to Oxford and earned a mathematics Ph.D. there in record time — two years. Yet he was unsettled by the idea of spending the rest of his life as a mathematician.
“I began to appreciate that the career of mathematics is rather monastic,” Dr. Lander said. “Even though mathematics was beautiful and I loved it, I wasn’t a very good monk.” He craved a more social environment, more interactions.
“I found an old professor of mine and said, ‘What can I do that makes some use of my talents?’ ” He ended up at Harvard Business School, teaching managerial economics.
He had never studied the subject, he confesses, but taught himself as he went along. “I learned it faster than the students did,” Dr. Lander said.
Yet at 23, he was growing restless, craving something more challenging. Managerial economics, he recalled, “wasn’t deep enough.”
He spoke to his brother, Arthur, a neurobiologist, who sent him mathematical models of how the cerebellum worked. The models “seemed hokey,” Dr. Lander said, “but the brain was interesting.”
His appetite for biology whetted, he began hanging around a fruit-fly genetics lab at Harvard. A few years later, he talked the business school into giving him a leave of absence.
He told Harvard he would go to M.I.T., probably to learn about artificial intelligence. Instead, he ended up spending his time in Robert Horvitz’s worm genetics lab. And that led to the spark that changed his life. ...