His best friend’s mom laughed when Lanza told her he wanted to become a doctor. “You’d probably make a very good carpenter,” she said. When Lanza announced his plan for the school science fair—he would alter a chicken’s genetics and turn it from white to black—his classmates giggled and his teacher said it was impossible. It’s a word he’ll hear many times.

Down in the basement, wedged between the furnace and clothes dryer, a homemade Styrofoam incubator on the table in front of him, he’s decided the chicken experiment is challenging, but not impossible. He talked his way into syringes and penicillin at local hospitals and borrowed tabletop centrifuges from a guy across town who works for the state health agency. His neighbor drove him to local farms so he could gather eggs from white chickens and black ones. Now he’s been working in the furnace room for months, trying to introduce pigmented genes into white embryos while his mom stands in the kitchen telling her friends that “Robby is downstairs trying to hatch chicken eggs.” Not quite, Mom, he thinks.

Eventually several white chicks will emerge from their eggs with brown spots. Lanza will drop by Harvard Medical School to get help repeating the results, and in a scene straight out of the movies, he’ll mistake the founder of Harvard’s neurobiology department for a janitor. Stephen Kuffler, “the father of modern neuroscience,” won’t mind a bit. He’ll introduce Lanza to a graduate student who will later become director of Harvard’s Center for Brain Science, and who will spend hours chatting with the eager teen about his chicken project.

Molly Petrilla, writing in The Pennsylvania Gazette about the early life of Dr. Robert Lanza. Dr. Lanza has racked up a slew of scientific accolades—and generated an equal amount of controversy—for his pioneering work on cloning and stem cells.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons