Robert Langer SCD ’74 — professor in chemical engineering and biological engineering — was recently named one of the 11 researchers to receive the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, becoming one of only seven Americans to have received both this and the National Medal of Science, which he won in 2006. Langer, who has received over 220 awards and honors, will meet with President Obama at the medal ceremony. According to Xconomy, he plans to discuss “the importance of funding basic research in science and engineering, and of funding young scientists,” a conversation similar to the one he had with the president in 2006 that appeared in Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope. The Tech sat down with Langer for a quick interview.
The Tech: How does it feel to be one of three Americans to win both medals?
Langer: It’s a tremendous honor. It’s a tremendous honor to win anything like that, and I think it’s sort of shocking that people are nice enough to pick me for both. I feel very lucky, very privileged.
TT: How do all these prizes affect your research? Do they get in the way? Do you get too much publicity?
RL: I think getting a prize is good for the field. To me, biomedical engineering, which is the field I work in, is kind of a young field, and I personally feel it’s a very important field, and yet I don’t think in medicine it’s that well-recognized, so I think if I get an award or anybody in the field gets an award, it’s good for the field. It may also contribute to making students or postdocs feel that biomedical engineering in general is a good field in which to work, which I also think is a good thing. So I think all those things are positive.
TT: Your latest project is InVivo. You’ve done tissue engineering, you’re done cancer research, you’ve done hair care. How do you pick your next project?
RL: Well, most of what we start within the lab is pretty fundamental bioengineering research. It’s like, we make a discovery or invent something and it really doesn’t necessarily have an immediate application. Some inventions or discoveries might have some potential applications that we or others might envision, but sometimes you’re wrong. For example, when we did the earliest work on controlled release, I thought it might be useful for diabetes but our approaches turned out to be useful in different kinds of cancers and other diseases. Many of these discoveries were published in Science or Nature originally, and they’re sort of broad-platform technologies that you can apply across the board. So at MIT we’ve done a lot of fundamental work, and we’ve published these papers and filed patents, and you can apply them to many things.
TT: If you could go back in time and give yourself some advice, what would it be?
RL: I guess it depends how far back in time. When I started out my career, even here as a young assistant professor, a lot of people didn’t believe in what I was doing. They didn’t think it would work. In fact, I remember when I was here just for a year or two a lot of professors told me I should leave, that I’d never even get a three-year appointment renewed. And, to be blunt, that was depressing. I was depressed and sad about it because I believed in what I was doing, but I was probably the only person that did. I tried to tell myself that, ‘well, things will work out okay,’ because now it’s easy to look back, and I know that it did work out okay. But certainly at the time, when almost everybody was telling me that I would never make it at MIT or anywhere, and that the things that I was doing didn’t work and that they shouldn’t fund my grants, I mean, that was sad. The early days were discouraging, but like I said, I would probably tell myself that things would get better.
TT: So many people wonder, it seems like you’ve gotten every prize but the Nobel. Is that on the horizon?
RL: I’m lucky to have won the engineering prizes — Nobel Prizes are normally given for very fundamental work. As an engineer I feel very privileged to have gotten the Draper prize, which people consider the engineering Nobel, and other prizes too.
TT: What’s something people don’t know about you?
RL: I exercise two to three hours a day — I work while I’m exercising. We have a recumbent bike: I sit there with a Blackberry, papers that I’m going over, and I just do that. I actually can do it on the elliptical too, and even the treadmill I figured out ways to do it. I have to do it on a high incline if I want to burn significant calories, but I can read on a high incline. I [also] used to do a lot of magic; I used to do magic shows at MIT, but I haven’t done them in a while.