Could you give us another example of how you applied these ideas?
So a second, really quick example I wanted to give you was Joe Vacanti. He’s a surgeon at Mass General, and I had an idea about 30 years ago that we could combine three-dimensional polymer scaffold with different cell types, and you could grow those and actually make different tissues. The idea is you could take the cells, put them on a polymer scaffold, grow them, and virtually make any tissue. Once again, when we first talked about this and wrote it, there was enormous skepticism, and it was very hard to get government grants. But then our patents were licensed by companies who, in turn, gave us funding. Today, this concept has become a cornerstone of this whole area of tissue engineering, leading to the creation of artificial skin, and many other tissues. We’re actually working in the lab on trying to make new spinal cords, intestines, and vocal cords, as are other labs as well. Someday, I hope this will lead to a whole new area of science and technology and all kinds of treatments.
When did you first know what you wanted to do?
Robert Langer: It’s a really hard question. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a long time. I think that, for me, I studied chemical engineering, and I studied it without, I think, really understanding even what it was. It was something that my father and guidance counselor suggested — going into engineering — and then, I was better at chemistry than other things, and not terribly good in some of those other things. So I went into chemical engineering. I went through and I did this undergraduate work, wasn’t clear what I wanted to do, so I kind of postponed it. I went to graduate school. What happened there, pretty much all of my colleagues went into the oil industry. I interviewed at those places, and I just wasn’t excited about it, so I started thinking about other jobs. Eventually, I wanted to do something that I felt would help people. I tried to get some education jobs, but I wasn’t able to get those, because people didn’t want to hire chemical engineers to do chemistry education. Then I thought of other ways I might use my education to help people, and I thought about medicine. There was a man named Judah Folkman — he is actually in the Academy also — and he was kind enough to hire me. He was a surgeon and he asked me to work on certain medical projects. For me, being in that hospital — actually, I was the only engineer, I think, in all of Children’s Hospital — just exposed me to all kinds of different medical problems and I could see that I could apply chemical engineering in some different ways to solve those problems. So I at least knew by that time that I wanted to do that. In other words, by the time I was a post-doctoral fellow, I knew that I wanted to combine engineering and medicine. But exactly how I would do it, that continued to take many years. I ended up becoming a professor, but it wasn’t immediately clear to me that that was necessarily the path. But certainly the general idea of combining engineering and medicine, that came when I was 25 to 28.
What was it about chemistry that you found interesting as a young person? Why chemistry, as opposed to physics or something else?
Robert Langer: I was 11 years old. I had this Gilbert chemistry set. I have always liked magic. This maybe sounds silly, but I always liked magic, and chemistry is always very magical. I mean, the kinds of things, like I remember, when I was a little boy, you have these solutions and you could take one solution and mix it with another, and all of a sudden it would change to a third color. You could mix one thing with another and it would turn into rubber, and those are reactions. I thought, “Boy, this is really neat!” I guess I was just always fascinated with that. So I think maybe just the visualization — even when I didn’t understand things that well — I thought it was fun and exciting. And then I guess when I actually took chemistry, there was something — I don’t want to say magical — about it, but something that I enjoyed solving the problems, the chemistry problems, and I enjoyed reading about some of the things. Not all of the things. I was excited about what it could do.
To a young person, interested in the sciences, what’s most attractive about chemistry?
Robert Langer: I might try to go about it two different ways. One, like I say, just my utter fascination, the magical aspect of it. I think chemistry is just so fundamental, that reactions can happen and you can make things that you could never make before. When you look at the world around us, chemistry just is so fundamental to everything. I mean, it makes the clothes you wear, it makes all of the materials that exist — synthetic materials in the world — cars, the airplanes, everything is done by chemistry. At the same time, chemistry provides a tool to understand so many things: how cells work, how drugs work. So to me it’s just such an incredibly fundamental science.
It’s sort of a two-way process. You can work forward, creating something new, but you can also work backwards, by breaking things down into their essential elements. It moves in two different directions.
Robert Langer: I think that’s right. I think that’s very well said. You can create things that never existed before, and you can understand things that are incredibly complex by using it as a tool.
Was there any person who inspired you when you were young? A teacher or role model?
Robert Langer: The person that inspired me the most was Judah Folkman. He was the man that I worked with when I was a postdoctoral fellow. He was really an inspirational person for a variety of reasons. One, he was a big thinker, and lots of people told him that his ideas wouldn’t work or that they were impossible. He persevered in spite of that, and did very, very well. And secondly, he was very encouraging, very sort of like positive reinforcement, in terms of how he would deal with me and others. So I would say he certainly had a pivotal influence on my career when I was a postdoctoral fellow.
You’ve heard a lot of “no” in your career. What is the impact of “no,” and what did that do for you? Dr. Folkman certainly experienced it.
Robert Langer: I think the impact of “no” is a couple of things. For me, early on it was discouraging. It was very discouraging for me to hear that. I didn’t realize that scientists were like that, and that people were like that. I would have thought — and I like to hope — that I encourage people rather than discourage people. I think you can say no and still say, “Boy, that might be a tough problem, but if you really work at it maybe you’ll solve it,” rather than, “No, it will never happen.” But “no” can be very discouraging. But I think if you really believe in what you’re trying to do, “no” is not going to stop you. It might be discouraging, but still, it’s just somebody saying it. They don’t necessarily have to be right. I think that for me, say in Dr. Folkman’s case, the fact that he had people say no, and they weren’t right, that was a very good role model for me to see.
As a chemical engineer, you brought a different perspective to your work in the medical area. So much work in medicine today is hyper-specialized. Do you think that we lose something through this narrow specialization, and that there’s some benefit to bringing different disciplines together?
Robert Langer: I think that there is value in being disciplinary, doing something maybe narrow, but really going deep in it. But I also think that there is incredible value in what I might call convergence. That’s a term we use at MIT, where you can bring disciplines together and try to solve problems in new ways. Actually, I think what has happened at MIT and now a few other places is that they actually are trying to do that. We just have a new building that I’m in now called the Koch Institute, which is aimed primarily at cancer, and half the people in the building are outstanding biologists, and half the people in the building are outstanding engineers. I have seen that happen a few other places too, like at Harvard and the University of Chicago. I think that that idea of convergence really can enable scientists to get together in unusual ways, and therefore can create unusual things. So I think both things are of value.
How does the idea of convergence actually work? You’re looking at the same discipline in a way, but you’re coming from different backgrounds, almost from different languages. Do you get these people together in a room, or in an e-mail group? How do they converge?
Robert Langer: That’s a great question. I’ll try to give an example. A couple of years ago, the National Cancer Institute put out a grant or request for proposals in the area of nanotechnology and cancer, and so some of my colleagues asked if I would help put something like that together. So we got a group of really wonderful biologists at MIT, and I asked a group of engineers, and we got probably about 15 of us together. And we came up with these ideas about targeting nanoparticles to tumors, new materials for ultra-rapid diagnostics, new materials for imaging, so that you might detect the cancer earlier. So those are all really, to me, interesting examples of how you can take, on the one hand, engineering and material science, and on the other hand, biology and medicine, put them together and try to create new things that can maybe someday improve cancer therapy and diagnosis. Actually, we were fortunate enough to get that grant, and continue to get it, and I think it’s doing a lot of good.
From an engineering perspective, what would you say are the most amazing engineering feats of the human body?
Robert Langer: The human body is incredibly remarkable. We’re still trying to figure out how it does what it does. One just incredible feat is just how you start with an embryo and make a person. How do all of these things happen so that cells differentiate? You start with it being a general-type cell, and then somehow it becomes a cartilage cell or bone cell, and then it knows actually where to go, and how to form, and what forms around it. To me, that is just an amazing thing, that we have this ability to form these tissues and organs in such a remarkable way, and most of the time do it correctly. That is probably one of the most remarkable things that I have seen. And then, obviously, what happens at a cellular, molecular level in any cell. All of that together is just amazing.
When you look at the design of the human body, is there anything that makes you say, “Well, that could have been done a lot better.”
Robert Langer: Of course, I think the human body does really well. I suppose you could look at other species and see how they do things better. Some organisms you can chop off a limb and it will actually regenerate. That’s pretty good. Lots of animals are faster than we are, or stronger. Those abilities are important too. Some of them can fly, some can run very fast, some can regenerate themselves. There are all kinds of things that you could probably do better because they have been done better in other cases. But it’s hard to be as intelligent, I suppose.
Let’s turn to something that does seem to set us apart from other creatures, which is our creativity. We’d like to talk a little bit about the creative process in science. When you were a kid, did you like creative and imaginary play?
Robert Langer: I suppose I enjoyed creative play somewhat. I enjoyed magic. I thought magic was just incredibly neat. I certainly wasn’t creative like an actor or an artist. I wasn’t good at music. The one thing that I thought was fascinating was anything magical. I still love magic. I’ve even done some magic. I’m not a great magician, but I’ve done some shows, and magic has always fascinated me. That might be the one aspect where I was a little creative.
Did somebody give you a magic set, or did you have favorite tricks that you liked to do?
Robert Langer: I probably did get some small magic things, and there were lots of things, though, maybe tricks. So it could be anything from chemistry tricks that could change color — but, for example, I loved card tricks, and there are a whole bunch of card tricks that I think are terrific. There are card tricks where you can make it seem like somebody has extra-sensory perception. There’s card tricks that — what’s called the invisible pack — where there’s a certain card that you’ll imagine that it’s the only card that is turned upside down in the deck, and in fact, it is the only card turned upside down in the deck. So those are some, but I like watching magic, and even doing it.
What’s the secret to a great card trick?
Robert Langer: I think there are two things, First, the secret to enjoying it is that it is seemingly so impossible and you can’t figure it out. The secret to doing it is sometimes misdirection. You do certain things and people think you’re doing it in an obvious way, and yet there’s probably something very simple. Usually people think it must be very complicated. Very often there is something simple that you do, and that makes the card trick work.
Is there anybody in your early life who encouraged you to be creative, who spurred you in that direction?
Robert Langer: I think my dad and my grandfather. I don’t know that they encouraged me to be creative per se, but they certainly encouraged me to think. They would play math games with me and things like that. I think that just encouraging you to think, and encouraging you in games and things like that, I think that probably helped some. I think it encouraged me to want to do more, and it certainly made me like math a lot when I was young.
Where do you think creativity comes from?
Robert Langer: I think probably there are certain things that are inherent — maybe genetic — about creativity. But I also think that there are probably several elements that can help in terms of creativity, too. One is probably just self-confidence. I remember when I was younger, sometimes I would like have an idea and probably immediately I would dismiss it. How could I come up with something? But as I got older, I got maybe more self-confident. I think another thing that helps — and I think was incredibly valuable for me — was stretching myself. Not necessarily intentionally, but the fact that say, I was a chemical engineer on the one hand, and then I would be exposed to medicine on the other hand. I would have these two different disciplines. What I would start to do, because they were so different, you would think, “Well, you could combine them,” and that would give me ideas probably that nobody at that time had, because nobody else had that kind of background. Very, very few chemical engineers, and mostly they were doing oil, and I was doing medicine. So I thought, “Well, I could do something different,” just because I had the skill set and I saw that whole other area. I think stretching yourself, intentionally or unintentionally, in new areas, seeing new things that people haven’t seen before and yet knowing something else, I think that that probably helped me do it.
How did that process work for you? Can you give an example?
Robert Langer: I could give a couple of examples, but let me just give you one very broad one. After I was a chemical engineer, I worked in a hospital, and I did a lot of work on materials. I was curious, how do materials find their way into medicine? And I was a chemical engineer, I thought — I was a young guy — I thought it must be chemists or chemical engineers. But as I looked into this, I found that was almost never true.
When I looked at this, I found — pretty much in the 20th century, when I was doing work — that almost every material that ever came into medicine was actually driven by a medical doctor. And what they pretty much always did is, whenever they wanted to solve a medical problem, they went to their house and they found some object in their house that kind of resembled the organ or tissue — from a material standpoint — that they wanted to fix. So for example, in 1967 some of the clinicians at the NIH wanted to make an artificial heart, and they said, “Well, what object has a good flex life, like a heart?” and they said, “A ladies girdle.” So they took the material in that, and made the artificial heart out of it. That, of course, has led to some problems. When blood hits the surface, the artificial heart forms a clot. The clot can go to the patient’s brain, they can get a stroke and they can die.
Another example is one of the materials used in a woman’s breast implant is actually a mattress stuffing, because it’s squishy and it’s a polyurethane. I was a chemical engineer. I didn’t think that way. I thought, one of the things you learn in chemical engineering is design. So what I started saying is, rather than take it from your house, why don’t you ask the question, “What do you really want in this material from an engineering standpoint, chemistry standpoint, biology standpoint?” You could put those on the board, write this out and say, “Well, these are the properties I want. I’m going to then synthesize it and make it from scratch.”
That was almost a paradigm shift that I started thinking about: how one could make new kinds of medical materials. That would lead to new kinds of implants that we got involved in developing, to treat cancer and a whole bunch of other things. I can give more examples, but that’s kind of a high-level example.
Do you find in your process that there is a decisive moment when you see everything coming together? Or is it a series of evolutionary steps, where you fit things together, maybe putting a piece in and taking a piece out, rearranging?
Robert Langer: I think there’s some of both. There’s this long road, but there are moments that people in science call an “Ah-ha! moment” where something clicks. To get it to work, you have to do a lot more. I’ll give an example. One time I was watching this TV show, and they were showing how microchips were made in the computer industry. And I thought to myself, in an instant, “Boy, this would be a very neat way to do drug delivery implants.” That you could actually have little chips with drugs in them, and maybe multiple drugs, so you could literally have a pharmacy in a chip. And you could do remote control drug delivery, maybe even some day have sensors on the chip.
So I had this idea. It was sort of a broad idea. Of course then there are many, many stages to go, and get it to work, that take many, many years. So even though I had that idea, it probably took another four years of work from one of my students and colleagues to really prove that we could actually do it. Then maybe another ten years before we actually introduced it into patients. We just did the first clinical trial over the past year, and it’s amazing. You can actually have a cell phone that can program, tell the chip how much to deliver, and I expect in another ten years, we’ll see these kinds of ideas more widely used. Maybe in another 20 years you’ll have sensors on the chips that will actually self-tell the chips what to do in different situations. That’s just one of many examples, but I think in science there are places where you sort of get this idea, but then you have to go do it. I could give other examples like that too, but that’s how it works for me.
How important is patience, for you, in the scientific creative process?
Robert Langer: I think patience is really important in science, because science moves slowly. In fact, what I usually say to people, “Probably some of the most successful scientists are the ones that know how to deal with failure well.” Because it’s easy to feel good when you succeed. That’s an easy thing. But you’re probably going to fail in science a lot more than you succeed, so you really have to learn how to deal with it and not let it beat you. So I think patience is incredibly important.
You’ve talked about the importance of patience in scientific research, but in so many areas, people expect instant gratification, instant messaging, instantaneous results. You mentioned trying to work with large companies. When something didn’t work right the first time, they wanted to abandon it. That’s one of the reasons you took your work to smaller organizations. Is that “instant gratification” mindset having an impact on the creative process in the scientific community?
Robert Langer: I think that is a really interesting question. I don’t know whether that necessarily has an impact. It may depend somewhat on the discipline.
I think that everybody likes quick gratification, but I think that when people really go through a scientific training, like doing a doctoral thesis, you learn at that time — or really through any kind of research — that science moves slowly. It just can’t help but do that. So I think that the instant gratification issue may, in certain cases — though I’m certainly not any expert on this — could discourage people at a younger age. But if you’ve gone through the kind of scientific training — like doing research, or certainly doing a Ph.D. — I think then you clearly learn that that’s something you live with, that that’s just the way it is. In fact that’s part of the value of a Ph.D. It teaches you how to do research, kind of what science is all about. But it may be somewhat discipline-dependent. I think more about biology and chemical engineering and chemistry, but maybe there are areas like computer science where it’s a little bit different, because you could do different things. But certainly in the areas that I’m most familiar with, I think when you go through this whole doctoral program, you learn that that’s just the nature of things.
Do you think creativity can be taught, or that you can foster it?
Robert Langer: I don’t know that you can teach creativity, though I’m certainly no expert. I do think you can foster it. I think you can foster it in a couple of ways. One way is that you can combine different disciplines. Like I was saying before, you can combine. If somebody learns A, and then they learn B — and A and B are very, very different from each other — I think that helps foster it, I really do. I think that people might put things together in very different ways if they do that. I also think that you can tell people — you can try to let people know by role models — and let them know that failure is fine. I think a lot of people are afraid to fail, and I think it’s important for people to realize just how often you’re going to fail if you try to do things that are a bit unusual or creative. So I think that there are a number of things that can be done, probably even beyond those things, but those are some examples of, I think how, you can foster creativity. And also, I think a third way is just putting people together in very different groups. In other words, if you put a group of people with very different backgrounds and disciplines together, and you get them talking, and they are bright, and they are told, “You can do anything,” I think that also probably will encourage creativity. So I think there’s a number of things that can encourage it.
Do you see social media as encouraging creativity or as dampening it today?
Robert Langer: I think it can go both ways. I think some social media probably dampens it. I’m just thinking as a dad. You see your kids on all these things, and communicating that way, when probably they could be doing other things. So I think in that way it dampens it. On the other hand, I think some of social media in its own right is creative, and I think communication with different kinds of people over different kinds of things can also encourage creativity. So I think it can really go both ways.
Do you think that social media have the potential to create a herd mentality, or do you think that over time it is becoming so ingrained, especially in the younger generation, that it’s going to offer a more instantaneous and freeform exchange of ideas?
Robert Langer: Well again, my guess, and I’m no expert at this, is this probably has the potential to do both, and I’m not sure. It probably will do both. I think that people can certainly communicate fads much faster that way than they could before, so I think in that way you could see more of a herd mentality. I also see where you could have groups aligned over issues or ideas that you could communicate better and faster, so that you could do that as well. I think it has that potential and probably will do both of those things.
Do you think there’s a point where creativity stagnates? Or is there something you can do to nurture it over a lifetime, a career?
Robert Langer: I think creativity can stagnate. There is this creative instant, or instances, and then there’s the long road of taking that idea and making it happen. It’s kind of like what Thomas Edison once said, there’s one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. I think, sadly or whatever, both end up being important. I mean, the 99 percent perspiration is also really key because just coming up with the creativity, if you don’t do all the hard work to then nurture it, develop it, I mean then it won’t happen. So I think it can stagnate, but I think both of those things end up being important. I think to nurture it, you probably want to create environments where ideas are valued. Universities are a pretty good example of that. Companies, I think it’s been tougher because somehow you have to have those ideas also lead to have a profit. There have been classically some wonderful places, like Bell Labs, for example, is a tremendous place where they had creativity. I think even in the computer area, Xerox PARC was a tremendous place where creative things happened. On the other hand, what happened is the companies that allowed those to happen, and capitalize on them, and didn’t have a way to take the creative ideas and make a profit, so that they ended up not existing anymore. So I think that it probably depends on the situation.
How do you personally maintain your own creative spirit?
Robert Langer: I feel really lucky. Being at MIT, you get wonderful students and post-docs, and you get great collaborators. To me, it’s just a great place. I feel like, if I look at our lab, there’s just so many people. I try to create an environment where I’ve got all different — we have about ten people with about ten different disciplines. Everything from cell and molecular biologists to all different kinds of engineers — chemical engineers, electrical engineers, material scientists — to different kinds of medical doctors and different specialties. I have them all working together. I think that in an environment like that, with just bright people, very different backgrounds, and they’re coming to my office, and they’re talking together, and things just kind of happen. The same thing in the building. We have all kinds of people with very broad different backgrounds, like in biology. So I think the way it works for me is I end up being exposed to just so many smart people with different ideas that will take chances, and you can’t help but be stimulated by that.
Could you take us through a typical day in your lab? How do you start? How do you attack a problem?
Robert Langer: Actually, there is this great article. Helen Pearson from Nature actually wrote a day in my life. She followed me around and she did a very good job. She started early in the day and went to the end of it. Of course what you see in that day is an awful lot of people coming into the office from all over the world, usually for advice on one thing or another and then I give lectures, and she even talks about what kind of ice cream I eat.
A typical day is probably lots of meetings and stuff. But if it’s an idea that we’re developing, what might happen is I might talk to some of the people in the lab, maybe have them come in the office and brainstorm with them, and say, “Well, here’s a problem that we need to solve,” or need to solve better. So just as an example, when I had this idea that we could create better materials, I got about four or five people together with different backgrounds — chemistry, engineering, safety, toxicology — and we started putting chemical structures on the blackboard and say, “Well, this might work,” or “This might not be safe,” and ended up with certain structures that we thought would be good. And then, one of the guys would go out and try to make those structures, and we’d go from there.
You’re a dad with kids. What advice would you give to someone young, someone starting out, about creativity and finding their niche?
Robert Langer: I have three kids myself, and I think you want to be really encouraging. You want to say, “It’s okay to fail.” It’s good to be exposed to different disciplines. It’s good to talk to people. And I would just say, “It may take time. It’s not going to happen overnight. It may take a lot of time, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s okay if it takes time. It’s okay if you fail. Don’t feel over-impatient. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.” I would say all of those things.
How do roadblocks or frustrating problems impact creativity? Can you absorb them into the creative process and make them work for you, rather than be barriers?
Robert Langer: This gets into the inspiration and perspiration issue. Roadblocks are things that come up more in the perspiration issues. Because you have this idea, and you want to go down it, and obviously in science, you’re going to run into roadblocks. I think you have to just say, it’s going to happen, and it will take some creativity to overcome those roadblocks.
If you’re doing something in chemistry, one synthetic route may not work, then maybe you’ll try another. Or in our case, one of the things that we did is we created something called “high-throughput” ways of doing things, which means that we know a lot of things aren’t going to work, so we’re going to do thousands of them, and we’ll find something that works out of those thousands. So there’s different strategies that you can use. And in and of themselves, those might be creative, because they weren’t done before, or you’re going at them in a whole new way. I think you have to start thinking that way. So you’ll come up with creativity to hopefully overcome those roadblocks. But you can never give up.
What role does life experience play in creativity?
Robert Langer: I think life experience plays a significant role in creativity in a couple of ways. One is that if you have areas that are very different, I think you may put them together in different ways. And again, if you’ve lived longer, you just might say, “Well gee, I remember seeing this, and I remember seeing that, and maybe I’ll give you another example in just a second.” So I think that that’s one way. I think a second way that life experience is helpful is the recognition that things take time, that they’re not fast, and that failure often can happen. Let me give an example about a life experience I had, and how I got an idea once. I did things on materials, and I also knew something about medicine — these two different backgrounds. About 12 years ago, I got asked to give this speech to the American Heart Association. And I had a couple of hours before I had to give the speech, so I went to the gym and I’m kind of a multi-tasker too, so I like to read something.
I just picked up the nearest magazine and it was LIFE magazine. They were talking about cars of the future, and they were saying that in the future, if a car gets in an accident and has a big dent in it, all you’ll have to do is heat it up and the dent will snap back into place. So I saw that, and I thought to myself, “They’re talking about materials that can actually change shape if you apply a certain type of stimulus, like heat.” So then I thought of something totally different when I was thinking about that, because even though I was not a surgeon, I knew something about surgery. So there was this whole area that has evolved over the last 20 or 30 years called “minimally invasive surgery.” And you might think, “What could that possibly have to do with cars?” Actually, it doesn’t have anything. But what I thought about is, like 30 years ago, for example, if you had a gallbladder operation, they would make a big incision in you and they would pull the gallbladder out. Now what they do is they make a little incision in you, and the gallbladder, you would pull it out through these little scopes. But the difference to the patient is, in the first case with the big operation, you’ll be in a hospital for many, many days, won’t be back to work for many, many weeks or months. The second case, you’re out of the hospital in a day or less, and you’re back to work right away, because they made a tiny incision rather than a big incision. So I started thinking, “You know, there’s all these medical devices that people implant, get implanted in patients, many of which are just made out of material.” And I thought, “What if we could make a material that could change shape?” So we could start out with something that’s like a string at room temperature, for example. And then you could actually put that string at room temperature through the little hole that you made. But when it gets to body temperature, which is a lot hotter, it could change into whatever shape you want. Like whatever medical device, like a stent to keep blood vessels open, or a sheet to prevent adhesions, or something else. So I thought we should be able to make materials that actually had the property that they were talking about in the car, but if we could do it, that maybe we could change a whole paradigm for medical device implantation.
So it was putting two very different areas together. One, I just happened to read about instantaneously, and another that I probably wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t been in a surgery lab, and maybe a third thing, just the fact that I knew something about materials.
Do you think you look at a patient, or at the human body, differently than a physician looks at it?
Robert Langer: I don’t necessarily think about somebody being sick or anything like that. I also don’t know the human body nearly as well as a doctor knows about it. I probably think about it in a lot of ways, just like any regular person. But maybe I also think a little bit about it, that the body is an incredibly good engineer. Different parts of the body are able to do some amazing things. Of course, there’s a lot of chemistry going on in the body too, so maybe I impart some of my background, in terms of how I might think about some of it. I remember, years ago, teaching about how the kidney worked. Part of that was to realize that there’s all these tubes, and all this transportation of different substances going through it. I think what they wanted me to impart was that the kidney is an amazing engineering feat, and yet it’s in your body.
How would you describe the contribution you’ve made in your field?
Robert Langer: I think about two kinds of contributions that I make. One is the training of people. I like to think that we’ve trained a whole generation of biomedical engineers that have become experimentalists that make new things. And to that end, there’s probably close to 250 people who have come from my lab who are now professors, all over the world doing just that, and they have done terrific. Many are department heads, deans. And then there’s probably another 250 or so that went to companies, started companies, created different bioengineering inventions and products, and that helped change the world. So I think that the training of people is one set of contributions. And then the other set of contributions are probably the ideas and the inventions. The fact that you can use materials to come up with whole new ways of maybe getting drugs into cells, or maybe making drugs a lot safer, or make them work a lot better, and the ideas of using nanotechnology in medicine. This whole idea that Joe Vacanti and I came up with, about combining polymers in mammalian cells to create new tissue and organs, which is tissue engineering. So I think that both kinds of things, the training of individuals, and then real specific ideas that might ultimately — and in some cases — have led to new kinds of products that help people.
Apart from chemical engineering techniques, what set of skills do you want students to take with them when they leave your lab?
Robert Langer: To me, when people leave the lab, the way I think about it is that there’s a couple of sets of skills. One is how to take a problem from the beginning to end. And it’s often a long road, but how you take a problem from beginning to end, from framing the questions to coming up with the answers. But also, I hope that when they’re there, they think about big questions. That they want to leave there and not do things that are incremental, but are things that are really big, and maybe can have a huge impact on the world. And then, I also hope that they’ve grown as a person, that they realize that they’ve learned how to work with individuals better, they’ve learned how to deal with scientific frustration better. That they’ve learned how to communicate better, both in writing and in speaking. So all of that.
Could you explain, for the layperson, what the significance is of nanotechnology in medicine? And also of the polymers that you can work with. How transformative are these technologies, both today and going forward?
Robert Langer: So polymers in medicine, I mean, pretty much any medical device uses materials, and sometimes materials make it possible to even create a medical device. In many cases, we haven’t even created the right ones yet. So I think if you want to prevent adhesions, if you want to prevent certain forms of blindness, materials can play a critical role, and we probably can do better than we have. Materials can also play a critical role in this whole area of tissue engineering, where you can make artificial skin new and maybe someday new spinal cords for paralyzed people, new vocal cords, new intestines, all those things, and many others. Materials play a key role. Nanotechnology is really at an earlier stage. Nanotechnology though, offers a possibility of doing a number of things. First, because the particles are tiny, they’re tiny enough that you can actually use them to carry different drugs to cells. So someday, for example — I hope in the not-too-far future — you might be able to deliver a cancer drug to just the cells you want, like a cancer cell, and not to other cells. Someday — I hope in the not-too-far future — you could take, possibly, new kinds of medicines that people are trying to develop that specifically knock out certain genes and get them into a cell. But I don’t limit it just to therapy. I also think it can be useful in imaging agents, so that you could make better imaging agents, so that you could detect disease like cancer earlier. And finally, I think you could do diagnostics much more rapidly. Because again, nanotechnology enables particles to be very small. So you could put certain things on them, and because the surface area is so great compared to larger particles, you may be able to amplify certain signals, and therefore you could detect certain diseases much more rapidly. So we’re actually working on a project with a company, like if somebody has a bacterial infection, now it might take five days to know what it is and to treat it. But I hope that when we’re done, it will take an hour, and maybe some day in the future, even less.
Are we going to have to reinterpret how we approach medicine with these new technologies?
Robert Langer: I think a lot of these new discoveries that we’re involved in — and that many other scientists are involved in — will change how people think about medicine. For example, people are talking about personalized medicine, where we understand the genome better, and that could lead to new treatments. Some of the things that we’re talking about with tissue engineering, where you could make new tissues or organs, can provide all kinds of potentially new treatments. So I think it will, as we move forth in the future, lead to new kinds of thinking about medical treatment.
How about medical training?
Robert Langer: I think medical training is important as well, because I think that as you come up with new kinds of therapies, it’s very important for people to realize what is happening, what is going to happen. A lot of the clinicians that I work with are a big part of actually creating this new frontier of tissue-engineered products and nanotechnology. They’re the ones that are helping push these things forward, from basic research to clinical trials and things like that.
Are there any diseases that scare you?
Robert Langer: Do you mean, scare me as a person, or as a patient, or scare me as a scientist? Sure. Cancer is a scary disease. Heart disease scares me. My dad died of a heart attack. I’ve seen people with Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS. Pretty much any disease scares me some. That’s partly why I do what I do.
What’s been the most exciting moment of your career so far?
Robert Langer: I remember, early on, when I was doing this postdoctoral work, and the goal was to see if we could ever find a substance — none existed before, or nobody had ever found one — that could stop blood vessels from growing. And this was something we thought would potentially lead to a new way of stopping cancer. We didn’t really know. It was a theory that my advisor, Dr. Folkman, had. I remember, we did these studies where we put tumors in these animals, and we could actually visualize the blood vessels. I remember, what happened is we were infusing the substance. I must have spent a year isolating it, and we were infusing this substance, and we were looking at the vessels grow. So in the control animal that just got a regular solution, when it started, hardly any blood vessels. Yet in the treated one that we started with, there were actually quite a few. So this was so at day four in both cases. You look at it day five, and you start to see the one with very few blood vessels in the control starting to catch up a little. By day six, it was maybe the same. By day seven, there were a lot more. By day eight, quite a lot more, and by day ten the control was very, very large in terms of blood vessels, and yet the treated animal still was right where it was before. That was an incredibly exciting moment, because you could see — each of those days was actually exciting — because you could see before your eyes that something did exist. And you could visualize it, see it with your eyes that this was really happening, and that substances would exist that could stop blood vessels from growing. And ultimately that would lead to a whole new class of molecules. That was a long time ago, but it was very exciting.
What do you see as the next great challenge in medicine, the next great frontier?
Robert Langer: I think one of the great challenges and great frontiers is what I will call regenerative medicine, tissue engineering. I think there is so much that needs to be done on that area, and I think it offers so much potential. Right now, we think about drugs — almost always — when we’re thinking about treating a patient. But you really can’t treat somebody if they’re dying of liver failure. You need a transplant. If somebody has a bad heart, you can’t do that much. Someday, you’ll be able to make new tissues and organs, and that to me is just a gigantic step forward in terms of every part of your body. That would be a whole new paradigm that would be great. It’s a huge challenge, but it’s a huge frontier.
Do we want to live that long?
Robert Langer: It’s not, to me, about necessarily living that long, it’s just living better. The tragedy is that sometimes it’s young people who have these problems. So I look at most of the idea of regenerative medicine and tissue engineering as helping people who might not live the kind of lives — well, first of all, might not live at all, and secondly, have a better life. Could you make an artificial pancreas so that people, diabetics, wouldn’t get complications and go blind, have to give shots every day? Could you make a new liver so that people wouldn’t have to have a transplant and take immune suppressives all the time and maybe die? Can you prevent diseases like even ALS and things like that? I think you could go on and on. So to me, it’s really stopping problems like that. That you just want people to have happier, healthier lives. Sometimes there are accidents. So we have a big project, for example, with the Army, Dr. Vacanti and myself, where people come back — again, young people — from Afghanistan or Iraq, and they don’t have ears and things like that. So you could make new cartilage for them. I think there are so many situations where you want to help people, and that, I think, is the main reason that you want to see these things happen. But it may also lead to healthier lives at any stage.
It sounds like, from your point of view, the patent system has been really successful. But in the United States, at the moment, there’s a lot of criticism of the system. Are there changes you would like to see in the patent system?
Robert Langer: In my opinion, there are relatively small things in the scheme of things that need to be fixed. I think the patent system is tremendous, but I’ll share a story, which I wasn’t aware of until recently.
There was a famous politician that was asked the question — this is going to sound a little bit provincial for people not in the United States, but it’s still a good story — he was asked what are the three most important things in history? And he said the three most important things in history were the founding of America, the printing press, and he said the patent system. And that man was Abraham Lincoln. I think his thinking about that was patents in general, which last for a finite amount of time, give people an opportunity to have an invention and use it, and yet not use it forever, so it would encourage innovation. And I think that that’s right. I think there are plenty of things that can be fixed, and probably that will continue to happen over many years, but to me they are small in the scheme of the fact, in the end, if it’s not broke, you don’t fix it. I think that the patent system, by and large, is good. The kinds of things I think you want to fix are, to me, almost simple things. I think that you want to have money go into the patent system so that examiners don’t — you know, I’ve had patents take ten years to get allowed. I think that’s not good, for me or anybody. So I think you want to have these things looked at faster. I think you want to have more experienced patent examiners who can really judge science and the claims. There are plenty of other things too. But by and large, I still think it’s quite good.
One of the things that clearly contributes to your success is your ability to talk about what you do in a way that we can all understand. Do you require your students to take some communication training? How do you approach it?
Robert Langer: We do, in our lab, emphasize giving lectures. By the way, to the extent I lecture well, I think the only reason is because I was absolutely the worst lecturer in the world, with that eighth grade example. So I was so concerned about it, and how bad I was. I kept paying attention to people who I thought were really good, and watching what they did, and I kept thinking, “Well, maybe I can do that.” Speak louder, or say something a little funnier, or whatever. So I do emphasize that. I think communication at every level, including the press, is incredibly important, because you want to encourage young people to think that science is a wonderful career. Not just being a Hollywood movie star or playing for the Red Sox or things like that. So I think that communication is, at many levels, so important.
Would you change the academic incentive structure of publications and citations? Because you mention that your work took some years to reproduce. There’s an incentive for scientists to keep their methods secret for some years while they explore their big discoveries and take full credit before the rest of the field can reproduce their results. Is there a conflict of incentives built into the structure of publications and citation credit?
Robert Langer: I do feel that when people make a discovery, it’s good to publish it. Not everybody might agree with me, but I personally think it’s good to share ideas. At MIT, whenever we have something that we think is pretty good, we’ll publish it. We’ll also file a patent on it too, so that we can protect it. We file a patent about the same time we write the paper. But I think it’s really good to communicate what you’re doing with others, because you can learn from them, and other people build on what you’ve done. I tell my students this. Because in the end, if you try to not communicate, you try to keep things secret, I just think we make less progress. I think that in the academic system, you can get enough credit if people end up citing you a lot because you published something early. I think that happens. The real issue, to me, is if somebody does something very, very unusual, and very different from what a standard faculty says, are they going to be open-minded enough? Sometimes scientists aren’t so open-minded.
You seem like a phenomenally optimistic person. Are you worried at all about the state of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education in the U.S.? What would you do to improve it in grade schools, for instance in lower-income neighborhoods?
Robert Langer: I don’t know that I’m a super optimist. It’s easy, after doing 40 years of work, and highlighting some of the positives. You have to think positively about things, because a lot of times these things are tough. To try to move science forward, and to try to get it used, I think it’s always an uphill battle. You have to feel that you can push forward.
I think educating young people, it’s just such a critical thing, and to me the kinds of things that I think about are improving the quality of science teachers, trying to provide better incentives for people to want to become teachers of young people. I also think it’s developing better curricula that can make real life examples, so that young people can see that science can be really exciting and can do wonderful things. And I do think — and this relates to the earlier questions — the media can play an unbelievably important role in terms of educating everybody in the country — in the world — about how exciting and all the good things that science and engineering can do. And of course unfortunately, so many times what’s in the papers and other things are murders, and Hollywood movie stars and stuff like that. I’d love to see more creativity put forth on things that would encourage education, science, and things like that. So I think there’s a lot of things that can be done both directly and indirectly.
What do you know about achievement now that you didn’t know when you were younger?
Robert Langer: To me, achievement is a really nice feeling. If you make something, discover something, I think it makes you feel good. I don’t know that when you’re young you have ever gone through this long road. In science, trying to achieve something takes a long time, at least for me. So I think you realize that in science, achievement can lead to some things that are really good and that can help people. I think it makes you feel really good. I think it shows the people around you — your students, your post-docs, people in companies — that they can achieve something and make the world a better place. So I think it inspires me, and everybody, to want to do more of that.
A lot of your creations and your innovations had a commercial application or have been used to start companies. Could you explain the role of a company in the scientific process, and differentiate between the value of bigger companies and smaller ones? Is there a greater benefit to working with one or the other?
Robert Langer: I think both big companies and small companies play important roles. But for me — as somebody who works at a university, and who often does things that might not go along with, say, conventional wisdom, and when I come up with ideas that are very early-stage — I found that small companies can take things a lot farther. I think with big companies, one of the concerns is that there’s just a lot of people in them. So I think it’s not impossible, but it’s often harder, to take an odd idea, and innovate, and make it happen. There’s just plenty of people above that person that can say no, and tell them it’s not going to work, or, “You shouldn’t do it.” I think at a small company, there are fewer people that can do that, and people have the passion to take early-stage ideas, and make them into products that can make a difference. So I think that small companies can play an incredible role in innovation, in terms of taking ideas that are early-stage, and making them real, and making them happen. But probably, I think you need both. Because if you don’t have the big companies — again, in medicine, it’s very, very expensive to do human clinical trials — it’s very expensive to get a product through the FDA and out to patients. I think big companies play an incredible role on that. Also, sometimes the way science works, you need hundreds of people working on something to solve a problem, and big companies can do that, too. So I think both. I think there has been a great role for both of them.
If we look back to other people who have been creative inventors, like Thomas Edison, has anything fundamental changed in the inventive process since then? Is it very different today from Thomas Edison’s day?
Robert Langer: I think it depends on how you look at it. There’s different kinds of inventions. Thomas Edison did things like light bulbs, where you could see immediately whether they work or not. When you’re trying to make new drugs or medical devices, it may take a long time to see if it works. I think that, at a high level, what you see are people with courage to pursue their ideas, courage to think out of the box. And then the persistence and drive to take those ideas and keep fighting and fighting until you make them happen. So in that larger sense, I don’t know that anything has necessarily changed, because the larger sense is human nature.
Sometimes we come up with medicine to treat a particular microbe or illness, and then the microbe seems to outsmart us. How does that push/pull process work?
Robert Langer: Nature is incredibly smart in every way. I think that is also a good thing, because we can learn from nature. If we’re able to unlock the secrets of nature, we can invent even better things. So I think it cuts both ways. I think we can learn so much from what happens in nature. We won’t be as smart as nature, but we can see what happens in nature, and learn those things, and make discoveries that can have profound effects on human life.
Are there other things that you turn to, outside of chemistry and the scientific universe, that you find enrich you or also help you think in new directions?
Robert Langer: I always like reading, and even seeing TV biographies of people. That could be sports people, it could be scientists, or politicians or anyone. I always find that inspiring. It’s interesting to see how people make things happen. I think you always learn from that, and I think you get inspired from it. I think they reinforce the idea that it’s okay to fail, that you keep struggling, and that you keep persisting no matter what. There may be stories of people very different than me, and stories of people who do things that are very different. But it doesn’t matter. I love reading those things and seeing those stories.
Are there any life stories you have found particularly interesting or inspiring?
Robert Langer: There are a lot of people I found interesting and inspiring. I will just pick one example that is very, very different, but I just thought was interesting, that I never would have thought that I would have enjoyed that much, which was Milton Hershey, who started Hershey’s candies. What was amazing to me, when I read the book on him, is that I think he wanted to start a candy store about nine or ten times, and every time he tried, he failed. Finally, of course, he succeeded. But what was interesting was just the persistence, and then of course he made it terrific. By the way, I don’t even like Hershey’s chocolate that much, but I just thought it was such an interesting thing. And then he set up all of these orphanages and things like that. But I just thought that story’s of incredible persistence, and there are lots.
Stories of Abraham Lincoln I certainly have found inspiring, and many people. But I think the struggle, watching how they do things, to me it’s always interesting. Thomas Edison. There’s lots of people.
If you hadn’t pursued this career path, what do you think you might have gone into? Was there ever a point where you thought of doing something else?
Robert Langer: When I finished graduate school, the natural thing was to go into the oil industry, and that could have been something I would do. I thought about it when I went to the interviews. That’s almost what everybody did and that seemed like the norm. So I thought about it, that might have been one thing. But I clearly went through that analysis and decided I wouldn’t do it. I ended up taking a postdoctoral job at the hospital, but some of the things I thought about actually were almost silly things, like take a year off because I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do and work in an ice cream parlor because I always liked ice cream. One faculty job I thought about a little bit was I got asked to be an assistant professor of oenology and viticulture at the University of California at Davis. My dad actually ran a liquor store when I was a little boy, so that intrigued me. But I decided I wasn’t going to do that either. Those are all possible paths that I could have gone down.
What does the American Dream mean to you?
Robert Langer: To me, the American Dream means that you can do anything you want, anything you dream of. In particular, one of the wonderful things I think about in terms of the American Dream, is that somebody can be born with nothing, or into adversity, and they can rise up and change the world. It could be create a company, make a great discovery. I particularly think about people who might have had very minimal education, that they are born poor, and yet that they could dream and actually accomplish, creating companies that are incredible. You see those things happen.
When you were in graduate school, you worked on a high school curriculum for underprivileged kids. What led you to do that? What interested you in doing it?
Robert Langer: When I was an undergraduate, actually, at Cornell, I was a teaching assistant when I was a senior and I loved it. I just loved working with the students. They were a year younger than me, but I could see that I could make a difference. So when I came to Boston I wanted to think about ways that I could do teaching and tutoring. The first year I was there, I got involved in some tutoring at places like Roxbury, where there were poor kids, and I loved that, too. And then my second year as a graduate student, there was a group of people wanting to start a school for poor kids in Cambridge. Cambridge, oddly enough, at that time, even though it has Harvard and MIT in it, had the highest high school dropout rate in the country for a city its size, 35 percent. So they asked me if I would help on math and science, because they knew of some of the tutoring I did. And I loved that, too. I just really enjoyed working with the kids, and coming up with ideas about how I could make math interesting and chemistry interesting.
What makes a great teacher?
Robert Langer: Number one, I think it’s important that the students recognize that the teacher really cares about them. I think it’s important that they can make things interesting, and ideally make them relevant to what the kids are interested in. I think it’s important that over the course of a term, and however long the person is teaching, that you have a program, whether it’s in the textbook or lessons, that they can learn something and feel that they have completed it, and really come away feeling that, “I’ve learned chemistry,” or physics, or English, or some aspect of it. So I think of all those things.
We hear so much about how the U.S. is lagging in math and scientific education, and that our students are not coming out with the skills and the desire to learn. Do you see that? Does it bother you, and if so, what should we do about it?
Robert Langer: It does concern me that the United States isn’t doing as well in things like — particularly in math and science education — as some other countries. I think part of it is, some of it, is just due to resources. That I don’t know that we put as much into teaching in terms of financial resources to kids, to teachers at younger levels, like grammar school teachers and high school teachers. I think part of it is also the media. I think the media, especially in our country, really glamorizes movie stars and athletes far more than science and math. I suppose that is natural, but other countries don’t necessarily do that the same way. I think sometimes things like science and math and engineering, which is what I do, they are held in much higher respect, or higher regard, in some other countries than in our own. So I think that media can play a tremendous role in that, too. So you’d like to think that, as a country, we would make more concerted efforts to give teachers the best training, to give them the best rewards possible, and that the media — hopefully, in some way — work harder to communicate just how great these things can be to young people.
What do you think will be one of the big achievements in the next quarter century?
Robert Langer: Of course, some of the greatest achievements we won’t know, because we can’t predict them. If I look at the areas that I have personally been involved in, I think the idea of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine will see real achievements in an area like that. We’ll see whole new ways of thinking about fixing different body parts that don’t work very well, and that will move a lot farther, and that will create a whole new paradigm for medicine.
We have big discussions now about the rising cost of health care, and cost containment. Does that affect what you do? What should our focus be? Should the sky be the limit, or do we need to cap our expenditures?
Robert Langer: I personally want to see the sky be the limit, but obviously you have to have a budget. I still want to see us do as much as we possibly can. I think if the issue is ultimately how much will it cost patients, I think there are ways over time, once you demonstrate things, that things can be made a lot cheaper. But I think first you have to establish that they work, and if they work, they can lead to new paradigms, and then you can try to develop treatments that actually trickle down. I think that happens.
Do you think you were a gifted child, or did you discover your gifts later in life?
Robert Langer: I don’t think I was a gifted child. I don’t know. I never thought of myself like that. I don’t think I think of myself like that now. I’ve just thought of myself as a pretty regular person, and then I was fortunate to do okay in college and high school, but then I found this niche. I made this decision to do something very, very different as a postdoctoral fellow, after my graduate work, that people hadn’t done anything like that before. I think that going down that path, in a way, it’s kind of like I took the road less taken. And that did, for me, make all the difference. So I don’t think I’ve ever been gifted, but I put myself in a position, maybe by good fortune or maybe because I thought a little bit differently, that enabled me to see things differently. I think that has been the main difference.
Do you think you were able to make that choice just because you were young, or do you think we can make these choices at other points in our lives?
Robert Langer: I think you can make that choice any time in your life. Maybe it helps to be naive — I certainly was — but I really do believe people can make that choice any time. It may be that somebody goes through a career, and they get to a certain point, and they say they’re going to change. I think the harder thing for them is if you try to change at 50 or 60, the world is maybe less willing to put you in a position where you can do those things. But I think anybody can do anything. That is part of the American Dream. You may have to struggle that much more if you do it later.
For me, as a scientist, the journey to here has been one of trying to dream big dreams. But one of the things that I realized, when you do this, is that a lot of times — and this is not just true for scientists, probably true in any area — that when you try to dream dreams that can help change the world, and help people, and think about things like this, that a lot of times people will tell you that your idea is impossible. Your invention is impossible, it could never work. But I think that’s very rarely true. I think if you really believe in yourself, if you’re persistent and work hard, that there’s very little that’s truly impossible.
That was great. Thank you.