2011 Commencement Address

Robert S. Langer, Commencement Address
(Sc.D. '74, MIT)
David H. Koch Institute Professor
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

College of Chemistry, UC Berkeley
May 14, 2011

“Dreams and Perseverance”

Thank you very much.

First, I wanted to congratulate you. Graduation from as fine a school as UC Berkeley is a wonderful achievement and you and your families deserve to be very proud. In considering what to say to you today, I thought about what messages I can leave with you. I will mention two: first – try to dream big dreams – dreams that can change the world and make it a better place. And, second – if things start to look bad, no matter how bad they look, don’t ever give up on those dreams.

I’d like to share with you my own struggles and decisions when I was a young chemical engineer to illustrate these points. When I finished graduate school in chemical engineering, perhaps like some of you, I didn’t know what I wanted do, career-wise. I graduated in the 1970s, and the parents in the audience might remember that at that time, just like a few years ago, there was a gas shortage. But it was even worse then. Not only did the price of gas go way, way up, but you had to wait in line at the gas station for hours to fill up your car. The consequence of that is that if you were a chemical engineer, you got a lot of job offers. In fact, nearly all of my classmates in the 1970s joined oil companies. They had many openings, and that's really where all the high-paying jobs in chemical engineering were at that time. I actually got 20 job offers from oil companies – four from Exxon alone. I also got offers from Shell, Chevron and others. Maybe the only oil company that I didn’t get an offer from was British Petroleum. One job interview made quite an impression on me. I went to this interview at Exxon in Baton Rouge and one of the engineers there said to me that if I could increase the yield of a particular petrochemical by 0.01%, wouldn’t that be wonderful. He said that would be worth billions of dollars. I remember flying home to Boston that night, thinking to myself that I really didn’t want to do that.

What did I want to do? Well, I had this dream of using my background in chemistry and chemical engineering to improve people's lives. I had spent a lot of my time as a graduate student starting a school for poor high school kids and developing new chemistry and math curricula. One day, I saw an advertisement for an Assistant Professor to develop the chemistry curriculum at City College in New York. So I wrote them a letter, but they didn’t write me back. But I liked that idea so I found all the ads I could for an Assistant Professor position to develop chemistry curricula. I wrote to all of them, but no one wrote me back.

Another way I thought I could help people was through health-related research. So I applied to a lot of hospitals and medical schools. None of them wrote me back either. Then one day, one of the people in my lab said I should write to a surgeon named Dr. Judah Folkman at Harvard. He said, “Sometimes he hires unusual people.” So I took what, at that time, seemed to all chemical engineers like a huge risk and began doing postdoctoral work in a hospital. It might seem more common today, but at that time no chemical engineer had ever done postgraduate work in a surgery lab before. The projects that I began working on involved two related problems (1) trying to discover the first substance that could stop cancer blood vessels (and thus stop cancer) and (2) developing plastics that might be able to slowly release these and other substances for a very long time in the body. Before I tackled this problem, no one had been able to develop ways to slowly release these kinds of substances for a long time and, in fact, scientists thought this was impossible to do. In fact, maybe the only thing I had going for me was that I hadn’t read the literature saying it was impossible. I actually spent two years working on this, and I found 200 different ways to get this to not work. But finally, I made the discovery that I could modify certain types of plastics and use them to slowly release those molecules. And we used this to find the first substances that stopped cancer blood vessels and helped stop cancer.

About 2 years after I started working on this, I was asked to give a talk on this work to a very distinguished audience of polymer chemists and engineers in Michigan. I had never given a big talk before. (PAUSE) Well actually, in 8th grade I had to give a minute-and-a-half speech. So the night before my eighth grade talk, I rehearsed the talk for 4 straight hours in my parent’s bedroom in front of a mirror. The next day, I started to give the talk, but after 1 minute of speaking, I couldn’t remember the next word and I froze. Eventually the teacher told me to sit down and gave me a very poor grade. I think it was an F.

So now when this Michigan talk came about many years later, I was very nervous, so I stopped working two weeks in advance of it and I kept practicing my talk over and over into a tape recorder until, finally, the day came when I was going to give it. I got up and gave that talk, and I actually was pretty pleased by the end of it. I hadn't forgotten too much of what I'd intended to say, and I didn't stammer or stutter too much. And I thought that when I was done with that talk that all these much older, distinguished chemists and engineers in the audience, being nice people, would want to encourage me, this young guy.

But when I was done, a number of people gathered around me and they stated, “We don't believe anything you've just said. We know that you can't get these molecules that you're talking about through these plastics.” And it wasn't until several years later that other people began repeating what we did and then the question shifted to “How could this possibly happen?” In fact, I spent a good part of my early career at MIT understanding how these plastic drug delivery systems functioned and making it useful for different medical applications.

Also, shortly after that talk, I tried to receive funding to support my research and wrote a number of grants. My first nine were turned down. I remember I wrote one grant to the National Institutes of Health for some of the cancer research I was doing, and I got the reviews back one day, and they were very, very negative. They not only turned me down, but they said, “Well, how could Dr. Langer do this? He’s a chemical engineer. He doesn’t know anything about biology and even less about cancer.”

When I was done with my postdoctoral work, I applied for faculty positions in a number of chemical engineering departments. But I had trouble getting faculty jobs because people felt that, at that time, what I was doing wasn't engineering. They thought it was more biology. So I ended up joining what was then the Nutrition and Food Science Department at MIT. But in that department, what had happened was, the year after I got the position, the chairman of the department who had hired me left, and a number of the senior faculty in the department decided to give me advice. They told me that I should start looking for another job.

So there I was, getting my grants turned down and people not believing in my research. It was pretty discouraging, but I was very fortunate that I had two very good friends in the department, both chemists, Mike Marletta who is here today and Alex Klibanov, and their friendship and support really helped me. I would have felt very lonely without it. In addition, within a year or two, scientists in the pharmaceutical industry started using some of the principles I developed, and slowly things began to turn around.

One other point I wanted to go over today is that to get these and other inventions to the point where we could help patients was also very difficult because it would take a great deal of money and people to develop them. So what I did was to begin writing a lot of patents on this work. We licensed and sublicensed those patents to over 200 different companies, and I even helped start a number of companies with my students. When I started these companies, many scientists looked down upon it. They thought it wasn’t a very good thing for a professor to do. But today, these companies have made all kinds of products that treat patients with cancer, heart disease and many other medical conditions. These companies have also created thousands and thousands of jobs across the country.

I’m thrilled that even though my career path was not straightforward (and it may not be straightforward for you either, which is ok), that it’s been a journey that has enabled me to realize my dreams of the good that chemistry and chemical engineering can do for the world. If I had any advice, any words of wisdom for the graduates in the audience it would be to dream big dreams: about how you can do things to help people and to improve the world. And there may be many times when you try to do something, when you try to develop a new product, or create a new chemistry or chemical engineering principle or whatever your dream is, that people will tell you that it’s impossible, that it will never work. But I think that is very rarely true. I think if you really believe in yourself, and if you are persistent and work hard, there is very little that is truly impossible.

Thank you. And again, my sincerest congratulations to all of you.

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