Career advice from the “Edison of medicine” | MIT’s Robert Langer

I do advise my students to be broad and open-minded
in their thinking when it comes to careers. I mean basically what you want is somebody
to have a great career and to be happy; and so my advice to students is to don’t do
what’s going to make you the most money or the most security, but do something that
will make you happy—whatever that is. Well when I got done with graduate school
or when I was finishing graduate school this was the 1970s and there was this gas shortage
just like a few years ago and the prices of gas kept going up. So what that meant if you were a chemical
engineer (like I was) is you’d get a lot of job offers from oil companies. And pretty much all my classmates went to
oil companies and worked there and they got very high-paying jobs. I did get 20 job interviews from these companies,
and I got 20 offers too, but I wasn’t very excited about doing that. I remember one interview where they told me
if I could just increase the yield of this one petrochemical by .1 percent that would
be worth billions of dollars, and I just wasn’t excited about the impact that that would have,
and I kept looking for ways where I guess I felt I could have more of an impact on the
world. Well let me give an example of one thing we
did. Actually when I was a postdoctoral fellow
with Judah Folkman one of the questions that we asked was: could molecules exist that could
stop blood vessels from growing in the body? A lot of people didn’t believe that that
could happen, but my boss at the time, Dr. Folkman, did; and he hired me and we found
that cartilage was able to block blood vessels. This was done with Henry Brem as well. And then we found what—we wanted to see
if we could find an extract. In other words what are the real substances
that could stop blood vessels from growing that might exist. And well there’s a lot of things—you have
to break up the things into different parts. So first where might a molecule exist that
could stop blood vessels? The answer to that was possibly cartilage,
which doesn’t have blood vessels. Then you have to have a way to study it, and
that was very, very hard because blood vessels actually grow slowly over time, and we needed
what we call as a bio-assay. And to develop a bio-assay we needed something
that could release these substances for a very, very long time. So a little polymer or micro-sphere or micro-particle. So we developed those but none of those had
ever been able to slowly release molecules that were really big. And the molecules that we thought would stop
blood vessels were really big. So we had to actually then create ways to
release these molecules slowly even though they were big, and release them for months. And that was something people never thought
was possible. But I spent several years working on it, experimenting
with different techniques, and eventually I figured out a way to do it. And when we did that we published a paper
in Nature showing that for the first time you could release molecules of any size from
these little micro-particles. And then we used that to create the bio-assay
and we isolated the first substances that could stop blood vessels from growing in the
body. Both of those discoveries, the polymer slow-release
systems and the substances that could stop blood vessels from growing led to major industries. Well when I first gave lectures and on the
work we did on slowly releasing these large molecules from polymers and we first published
this work pretty much everybody in the scientific community didn’t believe it. And the consequence of that is that I didn’t
get any grants. My first nine grants were rejected. Also when I started to apply for faculty positions—I’m
a chemical engineer and no chemical engineering department in the world would hire me. I ended up going into a nutrition department,
but the problem there was that the people in the department didn’t think very much
of what I was doing, and they basically told me I should start looking for another job. So it was not very pleasant in the beginning. I think if I’d moved away from it—you
know, I don’t know what would have happened. I mean it’s very hard to figure out alternative
paths. I think if you give up too easily that’s
not good. Obviously you don’t want to keep banging
your head against the wall forever, so I think there’s some compromises you have to make. But I think if I gave up on something like
that maybe I’d give up on other things that were important too. I just don’t know. I’m glad I didn’t.

About the author


  1. I dig this kind of stuff. Having experts in their field come on and talk about their ideology and outlook – in the frame of their career and life as a whole – is always a lotta fun.

  2. "Edison of medicine"
    What advice do you take from this?
    Steal your way to success?
    Bring in " tesla of medicine" into your company and after he did his job don't pay him?

  3. It's more a talk about his own Career…. I not insulting him ….he did a great job ..and he is doing some good shit out there. …but that's a misleading title

  4. Isn't "happiness" kind of a nebulous, poorly understood, constantly moving goal post? I feel like careers are kind of like relationships: you have to constantly put effort, time, and consideration into them to keep them functioning in a way that satisfies all parties involved, and you also have to compromise and "settle" for what you've got, to a certain extent. There are ups and downs in the process, and you aren't always feeling "happy" in the moment. I feel like maybe people just need to pick something that they feel is worthwhile (whatever that means to them), something that they can feel that they (generally) excel at doing, and stick with it. If you're focused on "happiness" you might constantly be viewing the grass as greener elsewhere, and never get anywhere as a result.

  5. So this guy is a incompetent machivellian scoundrel that made tons of money from ideas he stole from others leaving the real geniuses, penniless, nameless and broken. That Edison?

  6. Get a job that makes you lots of money…like a lot of money. Then save your money like crazy, invest it and make your money make your more money. Then quit your job. It's nice to have a job that makes you happy, but happiness doesn't pay bills. I this day in age financial independence is happiness…I hate when old, rich folks spew nonsense about happiness

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