“When I first came here, after a year or two, a lot of people told me I should leave. They said I was never going to even get promoted past assistant professor. A lot of people in the scientific community didn’t believe in the science I was doing; they thought it was wrong. And so I got my first nine grants turned down,” recounted Professor Robert S. Langer ScD ’74.
Thirty-four years after joining the MIT faculty, Langer is one of 14 professors holding the title of Institute Professor — the highest honor awarded to a faculty member. He is the most cited engineer in history, holds about 800 granted or pending patents, and leads the largest biomedical engineering lab in the world. His remarkable collection of awards and honors overflows the walls of his office at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Some of his most notable accolades include the Priestley Medal, the United States National Medal of Science, the Millennium Technology Prize, the Lemelson-MIT Prize, and the Charles Stark Draper Prize — the engineering equivalent of the Nobel.
“It’s easy to look back now, when things have gone so well. But I took a road that at that time nobody did, and people didn’t think it was a very smart thing to do,” says Langer. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Cornell and an ScD from MIT, both in chemical engineering, he found himself at a career crossroads. While he could have easily followed the popular route of taking a job at a big oil company like many of his friends during the oil crisis of the 1970s, Langer decided to blaze his own trail in the medical field.
His interest in biology was kindled while working in bioengineering as a graduate student with Professor Clark Colton at MIT. Langer later got a position as a postdoctoral fellow for famed cancer researcher Judah Folkman of the Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School. He was the only engineer in the hospital, because at the time, it was rare for an engineer to be working in the medical field. With Folkman, he began research on how to stop the growth of blood vessels supporting cancerous tumors and developing controlled release polymers. Previously, drugs have had to be administered in high doses at regular intervals, but by incorporating the chemicals within polymers, they can be given continuously over long time periods in a controlled fashion.
Langer’s ideas were first met largely with skepticism and even ridicule, because it was common scientific belief at the time that such delivery systems were only possible for small chemical molecules. However, he succeeded in inventing complex polymers with various biomedical applications. His accomplishments grew over his following years at MIT, with pioneering research that led to the founding of the fields of controlled release drug delivery and tissue engineering. His inventions include wafers and chips that deliver chemotherapy directly to tumor sites and three-dimensional biodegradable scaffolding on which living tissues can be grown.
As he found increasing success in his research, Langer also became heavily involved in entrepreneurial ventures. Many people approached him about starting companies. “I was doing this work in the lab, and I was publishing papers and everything, but nobody was using it. And I really wanted my stuff to get out and help people. So these companies provided a vehicle to bring ideas into real world products,” Langer says. He encourages his students to adopt this entrepreneurial attitude as well, giving them plenty of guidance on patenting inventions and forming startups.
There are over 100 students working in Langer’s lab today. His students have been exceptionally successful — eight are currently professors at MIT or HST (one is the director of HST), 14 are professors at Harvard, and about 25 have been on the MIT Technology Review’s list of the world’s top 35 innovators under the age of 35. And they’re spread all over the world.
About five years ago, a reunion — during which Langer threw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game — was attended by about 500 former students. “It’s almost like your kids. Well, not quite like your kids, but it isn’t that different. I feel an enormous amount of pride in seeing them do well,” he says.
Life is hectic for Langer, but he always makes time for his students, his research, his teaching, and his family. It is no surprise that everybody wants a chunk of Langer’s time. He is not only one of the world’s most prolific inventors in medicine and a leading scientist in his multidisciplinary field, he is also one of the most accessible advisors around. While his research has literally helped millions of people around the world, he also takes the time to help individuals who ask for his personal advice and assistance. BlackBerry close at hand, Langer replies to emails as promptly as any college student.
Langer has met all kinds of people in his work. In 2006, he spoke with then Illinois senator Barack Obama while they were both receiving an honorary degree at Northwestern University’s commencement. “I told him to give everyone more grant money,” he says of their conversation. Obama later included Langer’s thoughts in his book The Audacity of Hope, writing that declining support for basic research impacts the number of young people entering the math, science, and engineering fields.
Although Langer is invited to endless meetings, conferences, and award sessions, he tries to travel as little as possible — like any dad, he doesn’t like being away from his family. Describing one instance that left a vivid memory, he says his daughter, 4 years old at the time, heard he was going to Finland for three days, so she cried and grabbed him around the legs to tell him she hated it when he left because she missed him so much. His kids are older now, so travelling isn’t as much of a problem, but Langer still has trouble with over-scheduling. “Learning how to say no to people hasn’t been great, but sometimes you just have to do it.”
His secret to time management isn’t so much of a secret, but rather a testament to the people he surrounds himself with. The key to being able to handle so much at once? “It’s great people. People think it’s very hard, but when you’re working with great people, you set a direction, you come up with some ideas, and things work themselves.”