Interview with Prof. Robert S. Langer

Prof. Robert Langer
(Photo Courtesy: Mr . Bachrach)

(The highest cited engineer in human history)

Robert Samuel Langer is an American chemical engineer, entrepreneur and inventor who is widely known for his work on controlled drug delivery, biomaterials and tissue engineering. He is one of the few chemical engineers who started working in a hospital and proved that science could be interdisciplinary in 1970s. After getting PhD from MIT, when many of his friends were joining oil companies for earning good money, Langer, being a chemical engineer, wanted to do something creative which solves the real problems of biology. Science is interdisciplinary nowadays, but it was considered as a crazy thought at that time. He rejected around 20 job offers which he got in the conventional fields. He chose to join the post-doctoral fellowship with Dr. Judah Folkman, who became his role model later. He learnt biology with him and applied his knowledge of chemical engineering to solve biological problems. After that, he applied to many colleges and universities for faculty positions but got rejected summarily because he was a chemical engineer who was doing mostly biological stuff which was not considered as hard core chemical engineering by the professors at that time. He had to join in nutrition department as chemical engineering departments of many universities were continuously rejected him. Life was not easy in nutrition department too as he was not doing nutrition work he was doing mostly biology. He has a long story of struggles and rejections in his scientific career, but he didn’t stop.

Finally, he joined chemical engineering department in Massachusetts Institute of Technology and became the founder of tissue engineering in regenerative medicine. He was the first one who created engineered blood vessels and vascularized engineered muscle tissue. He is the pioneer of controlled drug delivery with polymers. His lab is one of the largest and equipped lab maintaining over 10million dollars annual research grants and with more than 100 researchers. He was awarded numerous prestigious awards worldwide including “Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering” and “Charles Stark Draper Prize” which is considered as equal to Nobel prize for engineers. Several prestigious universities like Harvard and Yale etc. conferred him Honorary Doctorate degrees. He is the most cited engineer in human history. He is called as “Edison of Medicine”.

Meher Wan: Thanks a lot, Prof. Langer for accepting my request and investing your precious time for this interview. You contributed enormously in life sciences and become a scientific celebrity. You are one of the most cited individuals and most cited engineer in human history. You have over 1400 research articles, 1300 patents (submitted and granted) which further licensed to more than 350 companies. You are the scientist whose research has saved the life of millions of people.

Let me start with the question, how do you manage such great scientific output?

Prof. Robert S. Langer: I’m very lucky to have wonderful, brilliant and highly motivated students and postdocs who are responsible for the output. 

MW: What is your process and method or motivation for doing such terrific work?

RSL: I like to think that students are motivated by the questions we are asking in the lab- the questions that, if answered, can have a big impact on the world. 

MW: Your father had a liquor shop in a small town. Many times, you used to help him in bottling. How do you remember your childhood, school days, teachers and environment in Albany? 
RSL: I grew up in a small house with two very nice parents who gave me a lot of freedom and told me I should do those things that made me happy. I have fond memories of playing sports with friends in my neighbourhood, of several great teachers, and of playing with chemistry, microscope, and erector sets.

MW: Many people usually complain that basic education is becoming boring and unproductive for students. What was the state of basic education in your times?

RSL: It really depended on the teacher. Some were very caring or very dynamic. Others were boring or didn’t care.

MW: You have a keen interest in basic education. You started an alternative high school in Cambridge. What was the motivation behind that?

RSL: In the 1970s, the city of Cambridge (where Harvard and MIT are located) had the highest high school dropout rate of any city its size in the United States. I had done a lot of math and science tutoring to high school students, so when several teachers in Cambridge wanted to create a private high school for poor working class students, they asked if I would help, particularly in the math and science areas.

MW: You are an amateur magician and enjoy performing it for students and in parties. Feynman was a safe-breaker.

RSL: I’ve always been fascinated by magic. I also think a lot of science is magical too. 

MW: What made you curious about chemical engineering? When you realized that science-tech is the field, you would dedicate the life for?

RSL: I liked chemistry from playing with my chemistry set as a child. I guess that was the start. But I also have come to realize that chemistry and chemical engineering can change the world.

MW: You mention Judah Folkman as your role model in science! How important is a mentor in the scientific journey of an individual according to you?

RSL: Very important. It enables you see what might possible at a stage in your life when you might feel insecure about what you can accomplish.

MW: Science is much more interdisciplinary now. You struggled a lot for getting a job during 1970s.
RSL: I struggled a lot finding a good faculty position. I was a chemical engineer doing some fairly basic biology and medicine, and chemical engineering departments at that time didn’t believe in that, so I Ended up in a Nutrition department.

MW: How do you feel, when you see that working in an interdisciplinary field is a luxury now? You left with a faculty job in the nutrition department and you wanted chemical engineering.

RSL: I’m actually glad it worked out the way it did. I learned a lot and I hope the work we’ve done has helped create a portion of what the biomedical aspects of chemical engineering are today. 

MW: In your early days in science, you started working on the structure of polymers for possible drug delivery. You are considered as one of the pioneers of the field, it took around ten years for contemporary scientists to understand the importance of your research. Your all nine proposals for funding were rejected at that time. How do you remember your struggle of the time?

RSL: I was very depressed and sad.

MW: Please, tell us any interesting story from your scientific life.

RSL: When I first started my research on controlling the release of large molecules from polymers, many people told me it was impossible. Yet, when we succeeded, we filed a patent, but the patent examiner didn’t understand it and rejected the patent five straight times. Everyone told me to quit trying to convince him and give up on the patent. But I don’t give up easily. However, I could see scientific explanations were not working. So I wondered if anyone had ever written down the fact that they thought what I was doing was impossible.  So I did a literature search and I discovered a scientific journal article written by five famous scientists saying that. They even used the word “surprising” referring to our work. So we showed that to the patent examiner and he said he had no idea people had said that. He said that if I could get written affidavits from each of the five scientists that they really said that, that he would allow the patent. So I wrote them all and each confirmed they wrote it. So he allowed the patent. That was my first patent. 

MW: What was the turning point in your scientific life?

RSL: Being a postdoc with Judah Folkman at Harvard and Boston’s children’s hospital. I was the only engineer in the hospital. And it gave me a unique perspective on how I could use chemical engineering to solve medical problems.

MW: How satisfied do you feel now after such a long and fruitful journey in science?

RSL: I’m very happy. I feel we’ve trained nearly a thousand students and made some discoveries and inventions that I hope are making the world a better place.

MW: Do you get ‘eureka’ moments for your discoveries?

RSL: Sure. Research is still very exciting. And I love working with the students in our lab and seeing them get so excited about what they do.

MW: Which scientific goal, you still want to achieve?

RSL: There is not a single goal. My goal is to have our lab make more discoveries and inventions, to translate these to products that can improve and save lives, and to train the leading biomedical engineers of the future. 

MW: What are the most important unsolved challenges in the field of life sciences for this century?
RSL: There are many. Understanding how to create new tissues and organs, developing and delivering genetic molecules to the right cells, and better understanding the immune system and how to treat autoimmune disease and brain diseases like Alzheimer’s are just a few.

MW: Cancer is still a big challenge.

RSL: It is. We are doing a lot of work applying nanotechnology to new cancer treatments in our lab.

MW: You are awarded numerous highly prestigious international awards, honorary doctorates from Harvard and Yale. You are a scientific celebrity whose posters are at the gates of international airports. What type of responsibility or feeling you have now?

RSL: I want to help young scientists and engineers, and to help people in the developing world.

MW: Any message to young researchers! Especially, the young minds of developing country like India.

RSL: I think being a scientist or engineer is a wonderful career. You can discover and invent things, and you can make the world a better place. It’s an incredibly fulfilling career and life. 


Published with courtesy of the magazine Dream 2047, (Vigyan Prasar, DST, New Delhi). The magazine can also be accessed freely by clicking at the link

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