Finding success in science requires smarts, determination — and sometimes a bit of luck. NPR's Skunk Bear created the Golden Mole Award For Accidental Brilliance to celebrate that last part.

On March 1, 2016 NPR announced the winner of the contest that drew 300 nationwide entries – drumroll please! Elizabeth Tibbetts, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan, is the winner of the 2016 Golden Mole Award for Accidental Brilliance!

“Liz's story hit everything we were looking for - it was set off by a totally chance observation, and she noticed its significance when others might not,” said Adam Cole, reporter and producer for NPR’s Science Desk. “She decided to pursue her curiosity instead of shrugging it off, and made a discovery that went against conventional wisdom, added significantly to her field, and paved the way for a career of research. (As an added bonus, she was able to speak very personably on the radio and provide amazing images for the web).

“One of the great things about this competition was that it self-selected for people who were willing to have a little fun - and Liz was no exception.”

According the NPR story, in graduate school, Tibbetts spent hours watching footage of wasp colonies, trying to understand how the insects cooperate. To be able to tell the wasps apart, she would paint each one with a color-coded dot.

"You use model airplane paint," Tibbetts said. "That's the gold-standard wasp paint."

While watching a video one day, Tibbetts realized she had forgotten to paint a few of the wasps. She was annoyed — a wasted recording, with no good data. But then she noticed something.

"I could still tell them apart, just by their natural patterns," she said.

Looking closely, she realized that each wasp has a unique face. There are wasp "eyebrows" of different sizes, and a variety of colors, spots and stripes.

That made Tibbetts wonder: If she could distinguish between individual wasps, could they tell each other apart? Established wisdom held that social insects don't care who's who — they're interchangeable.

"Maybe if I had more experience, I wouldn't have pursued it," Tibbetts said, "because maybe I would have thought it was implausible."

Luckily, Tibbetts was not burdened by experience. And her experiments have shown that wasps can recognize each other. They are capable of personal relationships.

That was a dozen years ago. Since then, Tibbetts has learned much more about the complexities of wasp social life. And she made another discovery. Wasps' tiny, tiny brains are actually wired to recognize faces, just as human brains are. And, just like that, Tibbetts turned a chance observation into a career.