Professor Robert Langer is the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT, which is their highest academic honour. His group has carried out pioneering research in biomedical engineering, cancer research and drug delivery. He has most recently won the £1 million Queen Elizabeth Prize in Engineering in 2016, in addition to his long list of medals, awards and accolades in the USA. He is a successful entrepreneur, associated with 31 companies and is the most cited engineer in history, with 1,380 scholarly articles and over 1,130 issued and pending patents worldwide. In this interview, he tells us what makes him tick, his formula for success and how to keep people in science.
"Society gets what it celebrates!"
Why should people study sciences? How can we encourage the new generation to choose to study and practise science? Will bringing young children in contact with science in a playful way help-perhaps something similar to the Gilbert chemistry set you have mentioned before?
It is important for children and young people to be exposed to many things, especially science. Coming up with educational techniques to make science fun and relevant to capture young people’s excitement is essential and this aspect can probably be improved upon. Publicity for science, namely getting the word out about research and its impact on people needs to be greater as well, with special emphasis on writing about it in journals, magazines and newspapers.
You were a chemical engineer by training and then specialised in “biomedical engineering” which was not seen as a core application of chemical engineering at that time. What made you pursue this, especially because you had to struggle for your research to get accepted?
I wanted to have an impact on the world and work on problems that made human lives better. I thought the best way to do so was using my knowledge as a chemical engineer, along with biology.
You hold >1100 patents, about 220 awards and have been associated with 31 companies thus far. How do you come up with all these ideas? Do you have a structure for your ideation process?
Firstly, it is important to note that it is not only me who comes up with these ideas. My team and I get ideas from my students, post-doctoral associates and my collaborators. When it comes to my own ideas, I get them from watching the television, while listening to music or by talking to people. For me, ideation happens in all kinds of ways, not just one. Sometimes I do have moments, where it just strikes me that we may be able to do something in a particular manner.
For example, I was once watching a television show on how millions of microchips were being made at once for use in the computer industry. At that moment I thought to myself, “wouldn’t this be a great way to make a drug delivery system?”. I talked to my colleague, Michael Cima and student, John Santini about this. We successfully developed a drug delivery system based on microchips, which is now in human trials. You can now design systems using remote drug delivery, pulsatile drug delivery and even have smart systems.
Do you keep track of all the research developments and patents in your companies or do you focus more on academic research?
In our laboratories, we did the early work and started a company, MicroChips biotech, based on it. This company now has 50 employees, is well financed and I am also on its Board of Directors, which means I am also involved in some business matters. However, I still think that my major contributions are scientific ones. I often have meetings to go over scientific issues, which is where I can contribute the most.
How do you personally define success? Is it addictive and does it induce a fear of failure?How do you stay at the pinnacle of your field?
That’s a great question, for which I don’t have a great answer! Success can be manifold. You could be successful if you are popular, if you train your students well or if some of your discoveries benefit humanity. If there is any way I can be considered successful, I’m happy.
I have had plenty of failures in my life. In fact, I’ve failed far more often than I’ve succeeded. Anybody doing research probably fails much more often than they succeed, because it is so difficult. I don’t like to fail, but sometimes I do. I try my best and it disappoints me when I don’t do well.
How large is your team, and how have you structured it to remain successful? How much personal contact do you have with each member?
I would like to tell you that we have a really organised structure - we don’t! Teams which are formed to work on research grant funded projects have a different structure from those working on independent projects. In cases where I don’t have large project groups, there may be particular post-doctoral research associates or graduate students working directly with me. We do have some very large projects, where I have some senior people directing them. Overall, we have over 100 people in the laboratory. There are around 25 graduate students, 55 to 60 post-doctoral research associates, in addition to visiting scientists and undergraduates. Everybody pitches in to help build the support structure. The post-doctoral research associates help the graduate students, who, in turn, help the undergraduates. It becomes a team effort. I still have personal contact with each group member and I try to see them regularly for meetings.
Do you still spend time in the laboratory, alongside your team?
I cannot say that I conduct many experiments myself anymore. I mostly brainstorm with my students and post-docs.
What do you think is the next big thing in science?
There is a lot of work on health that could lead to huge discoveries. At some point, breakthroughs in natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes would have a huge impact. Even weather and its accurate prediction would be an important finding.
How do you maintain a healthy work-life-balance and not miss any important aspect in your life? How do you manage all your commitments?
This probably evolved over time. When my children were little, my wife said she wanted me home by 7 pm to spend time with everybody, if I wasn’t travelling. She has been great, and is very straight forward. She always tells me exactly what she thinks and that is really important. Even though my children are now in their twenties and not at home anymore, I still love spending time with them and with my wife. These days, I do not have a set schedule and do things whenever they make sense. I work a lot of hours, but do some of the work from home. I like to keep fit by running and lifting weights and using the exercise bike. Our research group also has a softball team.
Are your children also attracted to science? Have your work and success influenced their career choices?
I have three children. My daughter works at the interface of business and science, for a biotech company (Biogen, Inc.). My two sons are still in college. One is studying psychology, whilst the other is studying science and technology. They are also interested in the interface of business and science, but not necessarily in the biotech area.
Since humans aren’t perfect, is there anything you would like to be better at? Do you feel you have missed out on things owing to your career?
I’d like to be better at everything! I would like to be a better athlete, a smarter person, and taller. However, I am not disappointed; I feel things are okay. When I was younger I tried my hand at playing an instrument (the drums), but I wasn’t very good at it and the school didn’t let me take it further! The problem is that I don’t know what I’m missing. Maybe I would have loved playing an instrument, if I had pursued it further.
Who inspires you? Are there people that shaped the way you think and do/did you have a mentor?
My post-doctoral advisor, Judah Folkman inspired me the most. He was a clinician and a big thinker. He had a lot of vision and believed that anything was possible, which has had a large impact on the way I think.
What were your learnings from your entrepreneurship ventures?
I learned a lot from all my ventures. From patents, dealing with investors, venture capital, to learning about the workings of companies and much more. The things I have learnt from my entrepreneurship ventures have been more a learning by doing journey, and not something a class can necessarily teach- you try your best and learn from the outcome.
Why don’t scientists in research enjoy the same fame that business people and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg do?
A lot of that has to do with the press and the media. A part of the problem is also ourselves (the scientific community), who need to convey what we do to the public in a better fashion, so they may understand more. Society gets what it celebrates!
What should be done to improve the understanding, excitement and appreciation for scientific research in our society? Should researchers and universities do more to engage with the general public through social media (e.g. twitter, facebook) and outreach activities?
The media can do a lot, but I don’t know whether the media would like to write more about science. They often portray scientists in a negative light. It is quite a tricky situation, especially since the media is in a powerful position, and can influence people’s thoughts. Changing the perception of media towards scientists is not easy. Though some writers and editors are very good, others are nasty. Unfortunately, relations between scientists and the media haven’t improved much over the past decades. A good example of making scientific achievement popular is the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. Such prizes are important since they increase the awareness of science and engineering amongst the general public.
Personally, I am not active in social media and also do not read about others on Twitter or Facebook, but I think the best way to promote science is through newspapers, television shows and movies.
Do you think scientists are underpaid and people in other sectors are overpaid? How do we keep science graduates in science?
It is often about money. Most people tend to gravitate towards where the money is. A lot of sectors are underpaid. Science is definitely underpaid, with education even more so. Financial services salaries have gone up in recent years, and I don’t think the service they provide has necessarily bettered humanity. Grammar school and high school teachers have very important roles but aren’t paid well enough. This is a shame and should be changed.
What is your biggest motivator? What keeps you going?
I love what I do. It is great to work with students and seeing our creations go out into the world and make it better. It is fulfilling to see the progress of people in the research group and the good we are doing. It exciting to see what we can find out on any given day and I am very grateful being part of it!
More information on Professor Langer, his work and his inspiring story can be found here.