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An honorary degree for a leading light in biomedical engineering

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2007 - Autumn


At Yale’s 2007 Commencement, the university bestowed an honorary doctor of science degree on Robert S. Langer, Sc.D., Institute Professor and the Kenneth J. Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Langer was honored for his unequaled contributions to biomedical engineering—more than 600 patents granted or pending in pioneering new technologies ranging from transdermal patches and microchips that deliver precise drug doses to “manufactured” muscle and organ tissues.

The Yale honor was the latest in a long line of accolades for Langer, 58, an innovator who was among the first to perceive the benefits of marrying engineering and biology. His work has shaped the fields of drug delivery, biomaterials and tissue engineering, the three main branches of biomedical engineering.

His scientific achievements are superlative. Election to one of the National Academies (Academy of Sciences, Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine and National Research Council) is a career-capping honor for many scientists; but in 1992, when he was 43, Langer became the youngest person in history to be elected to three. In 2002 he received the Charles Stark Draper Prize, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineers, from the National Academy of Engineering. In 2005 he was named an Institute Professor at MIT, the highest honor bestowed by MIT faculty on one of their own.

A prolific inventor, Langer’s enthusiasm and flair for licensing his inventions helped to destigmatize the notion that academic researchers could work with companies to translate their research into useful products. In addition, his lab is a premier training ground for new biomedical engineers. By his own estimate, more than 400 people have come through the lab since he came to MIT in 1977, and many of those have gone on to stellar careers in their own rights.

Behind the formidable résumé lies a person who is disarmingly humble about his own achievements and irrepressibly upbeat about his students. The secret of his success? “I just try to get really bright people into my lab, and give them all the support and encouragement they need,” says Langer. Of his three Yale-based progeny, he says, “They are all terrific in different ways, and are all having great careers.” He uses words like “super smart” and “super nice” and “terrific” to describe each of them, and then adds, “They are all people I’m very fond of.”

Saltzman, Lavik and Niklason all give the impression that the feeling is mutual. Last July, Saltzman joined with other Langer lab alums to organize a tribute to their mentor. They put on a four-day symposium marking the 30th anniversary of Langer’s seminal publication in Nature describing the use of polymers for drug delivery. The event drew more than 400 attendees.

“We started out to plan a casual get-together of people from the lab,” Saltzman said. “But it was unbelievable how many people wanted the chance to publicly say ‘thank you,’ who were fighting for that chance.”

At the gala, Niklason spoke about lessons learned in her time with Langer, and Lavik baked a decadent flourless chocolate torte for the honoree, who is known for his love of anything chocolate.

It was a well-deserved tribute, if a bit strangely timed, Saltzman said. “No one has had a bigger impact on the field than Bob, but this was a celebration you might expect for someone who is retiring or turning 80. But I don’t believe Bob has hit his peak yet.”