When Dr. Robert Langer was a child, his dad used to play all kinds of math games with him. Robert enjoyed both that as well as he enjoyed the children’s scientist sets that his parents brought home for him to explore and play with.
Some of the scientist’s sets had little shrimp eggs that could hatch, some had parachutes and others had a microscope but the ones that Robert liked best were the chemistry sets.
“I always liked magic and in those chemistry sets I could make things blow up and mix different colors to make a completely different one appear”, says Robert Langer and puts on a big smile.
He followed that path and became a chemical engineer and today, about 60 years later, Dr. Robert Langer has won more than 220 awards for his work and science, he has 34 honorary doctorates and is a member of all four National Academies in the US.
He has written over 1,450 articles, which have been cited over 300,000 times; his h-index of 269 is the highest of any engineer in history. He has more than 1,360 issued and pending patents worldwide which have been licensed or sublicensed to over 400 companies.
In other words, he is one of the most accomplished engineers in history and he has spent most of his career in the field of biotech. In November, he joined the Scientific Advisory Board for BioInnovation Institute as the chairman and gave a Talk at The Square about the interlink of scientific research and entrepreneurship.
We met with him for a talk about his life and career.
Why did you choose chemical engineering?
My parents played a role by fostering my interest in science but besides that, I actually don’t have a clear answer. I was good at math and people often told me that and said I should become an engineer, but when I finished my Ph.D I wasn’t very excited about the job opportunities. Most chemical engineers went into the oil industry, but I went for a post-doc at Boston’s Children’s Hospital because I wanted to help people and I thought I could do that by combining engineering and medicine. I actually wrote to many medical schools and hospitals that never wrote me back, until Judah Folkman from Boston’s Children’s Hospital did.
What would you have chosen if not chemical engineering?
I have thought about that. I am very interested in the business aspects of running a company so that could have been interesting. I also really like good food and especially ice cream and chocolate so perhaps I would have liked working in an ice cream parlor. A very nice journalist from Nature once followed me for a day and she made sure that the article included how much chocolate I had.
What do you do over the weekend?
I spend a lot of my time with my family and my mother who is 96 years old and lives close to us. I also exercise both on weekdays and weekends and I like to take my three kids to American football games. And then I work a lot.
You have worked and still work with start-ups. How is that?
I think of companies as children growing up. When they are babies, they need a lot of nurturing. Later on, they need less and in the end, they may not even listen to you, but at least you hope they will love you. I just want happy kids and happy companies and most of them have done pretty well. Every story is different and some of the companies have more than 1000 employees today but in every case, there have been many ups and downs.
What do you look for in young scientists?
I look for people who are the best in general as opposed to a specialist. I rely heavily on their advisors and if they say that this person is the best, that he or she would walk through walls to accomplish things and is a nice person, I work with them. The thing I am most proud of is seeing how well my students have done over time. 18 are members of the National Academy of Engineering, 16 are members of the National Academy of Science and 40 of them have been named to the MIT Technology Review 35. In addition to that 350 are professors and many of them have started companies. I have been lucky in choosing people and MIT has been a good environment for them to flourish in.