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Oct 25

No. 51: My Research Career - Lessons Learned: Dr. Robert S. Langer

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My Research Career: Lessons Learned

Spotlight on: Dr. Robert S. Langer

David H. Koch Institute Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Langer Lab

MIT Department of Chemical Engineering

Editor's note: Dr. Langer's MIT research laboratory is one of the world's largest biomedical engineering labs, maintaining about $10 million in annual grants and more than 100 researchers. He has authored more than 1,100 scientific articles and has approximately 760 issued and pending patents worldwide. He has won more than 180 awards, including the Millennium Prize (2008) and the U.S. National Medical of Science (2006). Dr. Langer holds honorary doctorates from many institutions worldwide, including Harvard University, Yale University, and Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. Forbes magazine (1999) and Bio World (1990) named him one of the 25 most important people in biotechnology in the world, and Forbes also named him as one of the 15 innovators worldwide who will reinvent the future.

How did you get into research?
Receiving Gilbert chemistry and microscope sets when I was a little boy inspired me.

What motivated you?
Curiosity and trying to do things that I thought would make the world a better place. An example is trying to create drugs that could stop blood vessels from growing and perhaps stop cancer.

What was the smartest career move you ever made?
Doing postdoctoral work with cancer researcher Dr. Judah Folkman at Boston Children’s Hospital, 1974-1977. (Dr. Folkman, who died in 2008 at 74, was known for his research on tumor angiogenesis, the process by which a tumor attracts blood vessels to nourish itself and sustain its existence. His work founded the branch of cancer research known as anti-angiogenesis therapy. He pioneered the use of interferon to heal hemangiomas.)

Who was the best mentor you ever had, and what advice did he or she give you?
Dr. Folkman. He taught me always to think that anything is possible. He never gave up no matter how much he was criticized.

As a mentor yourself, what's the first piece of advice you give a new post-doc joining your staff?
Try to think of really important new ideas as opposed to incremental ones, even if the latter seem more likely to succeed.

What was your toughest funding challenge?
Obtaining grants when I was a young assistant professor. My first nine grant applications were turned down, but I kept trying and eventually I landed one.

Do you see any new trends developing in the world of grants and funding?
I think foundations and industries are playing a much bigger role and this trend seems likely to continue.

Is there anything a scientist can do to enhance his/her creativity?
Accept opportunities to be exposed to disciplines that are very different from your own.

Is a research lab a likely place for romance to blossom? Why or why not?
A number of my students have gotten married to each other. Why? I suppose because they got to know each other really well.

Where did you grow up?
Albany, N.Y.

Where did you earn your undergraduate degree?
Cornell University – in chemical engineering.

Is there a moment from that time that stands out?
Having five 8 a.m. classes during one term. That was hard work!

Are you married? Children? Any pets?
Yes, to Laura. Three children: Michael, 21, Susan, 19, and Sam, 16. No pets right now.

What do you read — to stay informed in your field?
Science journals, nature journals, C+E news, biomaterials and biomed engineering and pharmaceutical journals.

What you read for pleasure?
Currently, The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs by Charles D. Ellis and Fall of Giants (The Century Trilogy) by Ken Follett.

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Comments (1)
associate professor
written by Dr mls , October 25, 2010
i agree with the advice your mentor gave on never giving up despite criticism. it's true. i ran into a lot of criticism of my first grant idea; nobody thought it had a chance and i felt pretty discouraged for a while. but i pursued the idea, filed application, and now working under a new five-year grant!

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