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MIT's Langer Lab

The May/June issue of Technology Review has an interesting article on MIT professor Robert Langer ScD'74 entitled The Problem Solver. Langer, who has co-authored more than 800 patents, launched dozens of start-ups and received many of the most prestigious awards in his profession, has been extensively portrayed in the media as one of the few academic researchers who have been consistently able to bring their innovations to market. His lab has even been the focus of a 2004 Harvard Business School case study (perhaps the single most powerful sign that a researcher has truly made it in the business world): The Langer Lab: Commercializing Science. More recently, he was profiled in 2009 in Nature and in 2012 in The New York Times. But the Technology Review article probably offers the most comprehensive portrayal of both the man's career path and his research. It explains the science really well but also uses many quotes and proceeds sequentially in Langer's career with many mentions of his collaborators, reinforcing the message that science and innovation are not one-person endeavors - in fact, his lab includes almost 100 members. (The article is in the MIT News section, so I don't think it is available if you're not an alum.)

Here is a great quote by Langer in a Q&A with Science Magazine: "When you’re a student, you’re judged by how well you answer questions. Somebody else asks the questions, and if you give good answers, you’ll get a good grade. But in life, you’re judged by how good your questions are. You want students and postdocs to transition from giving good answers to asking good questions. Then they’ll become great professors, great entrepreneurs, great something—if they ask good questions."

(The rest of the answer reads: "Then they'll become great professors, great entrepreneurs, great something—if they ask good questions. When somebody is a student or postdoc, what is going to help them through is to be stretched. That may be a little bit uncomfortable. But feeling some of the discomfort, knowing how to get through it—the fact that you can prove to yourself that you can get through, and you can do well—that is wonderful, as long as it is not too painful.")

Langer has an unusual approach to assigning projects to students: he says he gives the hardest problems to the undergraduates, because they will bring new perspective and the more senior members will pitch in to help. This fosters out-of-the-box thinking and collaboration, and gives legitimacy to the junior members.

A common theme in the articles I've read about Langer is his accessibility: he supposedly responds to most emails within minutes. I wonder whether this willingness to mentor lab members, in addition with his stated goal of genuinely wanting to help people, hasn't played the most successful role in the success of his lab. In fact, Langer himself is quoted as saying in the Technology Review article: "A lot of areas I've gotten into because this friend or postdoc or company was interested." If Langer had had a different personality, perhaps those acquaintances would never have contacted him with their problem. His students might also have been less eager to follow in his footsteps and become professors in their own right if he hadn't set such an example.  

Here is a 18min (accessible, engaging, very well delivered and full of stories) TEDx talk given by Langer in New York City in 2012 about biomaterials in the 21st century.


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