Three MIT professors are among 18 researchers recently named "America's Best" in science and medicine by Time magazine. They were profiled in the August 20 issue of the magazine and on a "CNN Presents" special that aired August 12.
MIT's honorees are Robert Horvitz of biology, Robert Langer of chemical engineering and Elizabeth Spelke of brain and cognitive sciences. Following are summaries of the Time profiles on each.
H. Robert Horvitz, 54, proved through basic research using worms that the routine death and elimination of large numbers of cells (apoptosis) is programmed into our genes.
"Cancer researchers now realize that the reason many tumors form is because they have forgotten how to die," wrote Time's Christine Gorman. The research may provide insights into AIDS and Alzheimer's disease.
The Chicago native emphasized the importance of basic research. "Time and again, discoveries come up in unexpected ways. You don't always know what's going to come out until you do it." In addition to his appointment at MIT, Horvitz is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a neurobiologist and geneticist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also an MIT alumnus, holding S.B. degrees in mathematics and economics (1968).
Robert Langer, 53, leading pioneer of modern biomedical engineering, graduated from MIT with a doctorate in chemical engineering (1974), turned down 20 job offers from oil companies, and went to work with cancer researcher Judah Folkman at Boston's Children's Hospital.
Among other achievements, Langer and a colleague devised dime-size chemotherapy wafers to treat brain cancer, and the same targeted approach has been applied to prostate, spinal and ovarian cancers. A native of Albany, N.Y., and an amateur magician, Langer is "a true genius," says Folkman. "He sees answers to problems in such unique ways you can't trace the steps he took."
Langer told Time's David Bjerklie that what got him started was the Gilbert chemistry set he received when he was 11 years old. Langer is the Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering.
Elizabeth Spelke, 52, who will be moving to Harvard University this fall, helped show how infants can connect what they see with what they hear. "Spelke's ingenuity lies not just in showing that babies are smarter than we thought, but also in exploring how they think and learn," writes Time's profiler Steven Pinker, himself a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT and author of "How the Mind Works" and "The Language Instinct."
"When parents inevitably ask for advice, Spelke tells them to put away the flashcards and enjoy their babies; babies' brains will take care of themselves."
Spelke told Time that being a woman scientist meant "there were times when I felt I was cheating my science, my students and my children. Sometimes there aren't enough hours in the day." A native of New York City, Spelke said her best ideas come while eating pizza or in the shower.
Pinker was among the scientific advisors who helped Time's editors narrow their list of 100 in science and medicine to 18.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 29, 2001.