Bob Langer: inspiration for job seekers

March 17, 2009

As a graduating  PhD, Robert Langer, now Institute Professor at MIT, was having trouble finding work.

As he told the Health Innovators Group of Combined Jewish Philanthropies on Friday, most of his classmates took jobs with oil companies but  he knew that wasn’t for him.  Having helped found an alternative high school in Cambridge, he  applied for 50 or 60 jobs in curriculum development, but no one wrote him back. Then he tried medical schools and hospitals, but “they didn’t write back, either.”  Finally, someone  in his lab told him that someone at Children’s Hospital sometimes hired “unusual people.”

That “someone” was Judah Folkman, who, in 1974,  was beginning to work on angiogenesis, which involved the idea that cutting the blood flow to tumors could halt  their growth.  The possibility  intrigued Langer, who  was hired–but made a rather inauspicious start.

As a post doc, he spent half of his time scraping meat off of cow bones delivered from a South Boston slaughterhouse. He   discovered 200 methods that didn’t work;. He  faced  hostile scientists who told him they didn’t believe anything he said, and,  as time went on,  was denied many patents by officers who were were unwilling to accept his proof.

It took until 2002 for  the first angiogenisis drug to gain FDA approved.  By then, Bob, who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, was MIT’s most prolific inventor and a University Professor who had helped found many companies and   inspired countless students–who now run departments, labs, and companies of their own.

I’ve known Bob since the 7th grade…and was in the 8th-grade English class  in which, he tells people , he was so shy that he froze during a public speaking exercise, and got an F.  We both went to Cornell, where, he’s told me, he found that he learned more studying on his own (and playing bridge) than going to class.  And I remember sitting in a pizza parlor with him in  1982, watching as he diagrammed  his ideas on a mechanism for “slow release” for pharmaceuticals–on a napkin.

Despite his success, a recent writeup in Nature,  and much  excitement about possible “pharmacies on a chip,”,  a stem cell device to help individuals with spinal cord injuries,  and an adhesive for heart surgery based on the sticky-stuff that allows gekkos to climb up walls, Bob  remains the same old Bob, who sometimes gets  ideas for new devices, materials and methods  from television and magazine magazines.    He’s still down-to-earth, supportive, and even funny.   (Did  you know that the most  surgical devices are invented by doctors who use household materials to fit their operating needs…which is why the “stretchiness” material used in artificial heart is the same stuff used in ladies’ girdles? )

So- for job hunters out there the message is simple but profound. Believe in yourself and your ideas, treat people kindly, and  keep on going.

Great talk, Bob. Once again, bravo.


New Cambridge Observer is a publication of the Harris Communications Group of Cambridge, MA.


2 Responses to “Bob Langer: inspiration for job seekers”

  1. Good for Bob– I like his style. One time in fifth grade, we had to write a report on “reflection.” I included my example, which was how they mowed the outfield at Yankee Stadium in two directions so the blades of grass would “reflect” the light evenly for both the players and TV cameras during night games. The teacher — who just did not get it — belittled my paper in front of the whole class. Now I don’t play 3rd for the Yankees — that job went to A-Rod and a few others before him — but it does give me a marvelous story to tell my friends when we are rooting for the Red sox at Fenway.
    Dick P.

  2. anharris Says:

    Dick, Upon reflection, I like YOUR style, too. Anita

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