Robert S. Langer, the Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, has been named Institute Professor, the highest honor awarded by the MIT faculty and administration.
"Bob Langer is an extraordinary colleague and an extraordinary engineer-scientist," said Rafael Bras, the Bacardi and Stockholm Water Foundations Professor and chair of the faculty. "His work on drug delivery systems and tissue engineering has literally saved many lives. As an author and inventor he has no peer, anywhere. Yet, Bob always finds the time to generously serve MIT and the nation. He always has the time for students and to excel as a teacher. Those extraordinary talents make him the obvious choice for Institute Professor. The faculty is thrilled to honor Bob Langer in this manner."
"Bob Langer's appointment as Institute Professor recognizes the enormous scale, scope and importance of his contributions to MIT and the larger society," said President Susan Hockfield. "His pioneering work at the interface between engineering and the life sciences has opened up entirely new directions for biomedicine. In his remarkably collaborative spirit, extraordinary productivity, depth of curiosity and record of innovation, he embodies the core values of MIT."
Robert A Brown, provost and the Warren K. Lewis Professor of Chemical Engineering, also lauded the appointment. "Bob Langer is one of MIT's most amazingly creative and prolific faculty members. It is an honor to have Bob on the MIT faculty and he richly deserves the recognition bestowed by the Institute Professorship."
Langer described his initial reaction to the appointment as "a combination of shock on the one hand and joy on the other. I look at the other people who are Institute Professors, and it's really humbling."
"I love MIT, and feel very honored and flattered," said Langer.
The title of Institute Professor is reserved for those few individuals who have "demonstrated exceptional distinction by a combination of leadership, accomplishment and service in the scholarly, educational and general intellectual life of the Institute or wider academic community," according to MIT's Policies and Procedures manual. With Langer's appointment, there are now 15 Institute Professors.
"I cannot imagine an individual more deserving than Bob of recognition as an Institute Professor," said Robert C. Armstrong, the Chevron Professor and head of the Department of Chemical Engineering. "He is not only a great example to the world of MIT's excellence in research, but is also a great faculty colleague and teacher and mentor of our students at home. His enormous professional stature and his broad value and engagement across units of MIT are both important attributes of an Institute Professor."
When asked what advice he'd give engineers and scientists beginning their careers, Langer said, "Take some risks. Don't necessarily follow a conventional career path."
In 1974, Langer did just that, with his new MIT Ph.D. in chemical engineering in hand. "At the time, young chemical engineers went into the petroleum industry. I opted for a postdoctoral position with cancer researcher Judah Folkman at Children's Hospital," Langer said.
At Children's, one of the things he tackled was the problem of how to get large molecules, which held promise for fighting cancer and other diseases, through plastic delivery systems in a controlled manner. The general consensus at the time was that this was impossible.
Langer persevered and ultimately discovered engineering principles that allowed a desired release of such medically important molecules from plastics. "There's no question that my decision to join Judah's lab exposed me to things I'd never seen, and that few chemical engineers at the time had seen," he said.
He went on to become the holder of some 500 issued and pending patents. More than 100 different companies license those patents and are creating products based on his innovations. These include a dime-sized polymer wafer that delivers chemotherapy directly to the site of a brain tumor, and a device that cuts the pain associated with needles and IVs.
Of his many accomplishments, what is Langer most proud of? "That's a little like asking which of your children you're most proud of," he said with a laugh. That said, there were two areas that came to mind.
"I'm very proud of how well my students have done," he said. Some 130 Langer students and postdoctoral associates are professors at universities around the world, including three at MIT. In addition, 150-200 past students are in top industrial positions.
"I'm also very proud of the impact of our inventions," he continued. Over 40 of these are now approved by regulatory authorities such as the FDA or are in clinical trials.
Langer joined the MIT faculty in 1977 as a visiting professor in what was then the Department of Nutrition and Food Science. A graduate of Cornell University, he received the Sc.D. from MIT in chemical engineering in 1974.
He has received more than 100 major awards. In 2002, he received the $500,000 Charles Stark Draper Prize, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineers, from the National Academy of Engineering. He is the only engineer to receive the Gairdner Foundation International Award; 64 recipients of this award have subsequently received a Nobel Prize. In 1998, he received the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, the world's largest prize honoring invention, for being "one of history's most prolific inventors in medicine."
In 1989 Langer was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and in 1992 he was elected to both the National Academy of Engineering and to the National Academy of Sciences. He is one of very few people ever elected to all three United States National Academies and the youngest in history (at age 43) to ever receive this distinction.
The process for selecting Institute Professors involves an ad hoc faculty committee convened by the chair of the faculty and the president. That committee evaluates each nominee, in part by soliciting opinions from professionals in the nominee's field. The committee's recommendations are reviewed by the Academic Council and approved by the Executive Committee of the Corporation.
In addition to the prestige associated with the title, an Institute Professor has a distinct measure of freedom to define the scope and nature of his or her responsibilities. Reporting directly to the provost, an Institute Professor does not have regular departmental or school responsibilities. As a result, the appointment provides a special opportunity to work across departmental boundaries.
The 15 other current Institute Professors are Emilio Bizzi, brain and cognitive sciences; Noam Chomsky, linguistics; John M. Deutch, chemistry; Peter A. Diamond, economics; Mildred S. Dresselhaus, electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) and physics; Jerome I. Friedman, physics; John H. Harbison, music and theater arts; John D.C. Little, management; Thomas Magnanti, management and EECS; Mario Molina, earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences and chemistry; Joel Moses, EECS and the Engineering Systems Division (ESD); Phillip A. Sharp, biology; Isadore M. Singer, mathematics; Daniel I.C. Wang,
chemical engineering; and Sheila E. Widnall, aeronautics and astronautics and ESD.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 2, 2005 (download PDF).