Langer: Dream big, embrace a life of possibilities

If graduates choose to pursue their passions instead of money, almost anything is possible, Robert Langer, one of the world’s most important biotechnology engineers, told graduates at the Thursday, June 12, morning session of Western’s 303rd Convocation.

Try to dream big dreams,” Langer said. “As you try to pursue those dreams, things may not always work out the way you want them to, but don’t give up on those dreams.”

Langer spoke to graduates from the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and the Faculty of Science at the Thursday, June 12 morning session of Western’s 303rd Convocation. Western conferred an honorary Doctor of Science, honoris causa (DSc), upon Langer in recognition of his successful and renowned engineering career.

When he graduated from MIT, he had no less than 20 job offers from oil companies, Langer told graduates. These positions would have been a sure thing, lucrative opportunities that would quickly pay off.

“I didn’t want to do that,” he said. “I wanted to use my education to make an impact. My dream was, ‘Could I use my education to somehow improve people’s lives?’”

He went to work at a hospital, for less money, working to find a way to modify plastics in order to modify release times of treatment medication. While scientific literature stacked the odds against him, and few believed in what he was doing, Langer’s work would eventually lead to a new field in medicine, and new paths for the treatment of cancer.

And that’s after he tried 200 routes that did not work the way he planned, he joked.

Langer encouraged graduates to never give up.

With approximately 1,050 issued and/or pending patents worldwide, and more than 1,200 published articles, Langer teaches at MIT, where he is the David H. Koch Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Being an Institute Professor is the highest honour that can be awarded to a faculty member at MIT.

The most cited engineer in history, Langer received his BA from Cornell University in 1970 and his ScD from MIT in 1974, both in chemical engineering.

He has received more than 200 major international awards, including the Lemelson-MIT Prize, dubbed the Oscar for inventors, and the United States National Medal of Science. He is one of seven individuals to have received this award in addition to the United States National Medal of Technology and Innovation, which he was awarded in 2011.

Forbes and Bio World magazines have named Langer as one of the 25 most important individuals in biotechnology in the world while Discover named him as one of the 20 most important people in this area. Forbes noted he was among 15 innovators worldwide “who will reinvent our future.” Other media outlets, including Time, CNN, and Parade have followed suit, placing Langer on similar lists.

Parade Magazine selected Langer as one of six “heroes whose research may save your life.”

Langer also received the 2002 Charles Stark Draper Prize, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineers, the 2008 Millennium Prize, the world’s largest technology prize, the 2012 Priestley Medal, the highest award of the American Chemical Society, the 2013 Wolf Prize in Chemistry and the 2014 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. He is also the only engineer to receive the Gairdner Foundation International Award; 82 recipients of this award have subsequently received a Nobel Prize.

He served as a member of the United States Food and Drug Administration’s SCIENCE Board, the FDA’s highest advisory board, from 1995-2002 and as its chairman from 1999-2002.

In his citation, Western President Amit Chakma praised Langer’s remarkable talent.

“He’s one of the greatest scientists of our time,” Chakma said, noting Western is honoured to recognize his “extraordinary dedication to medial discovery.”

Langer told graduates even if they do not know what they want to do today, they should be persistent when they find their calling.

“When you graduate from college, the path you follow is often confusing, often unclear and sometimes scary. But I hope you will choose something you really love and you will dream big dreams of how you can help people,” he said.

“People might tell you it’s impossible, or that it won’t work, but I think that’s rarely true. If you believe in yourself and work hard, almost anything is possible,” Langer continued.

Also during the ceremony, the Marilyn Robinson Award for Excellence in Teaching was given to Physiology and Pharmacology professor Brad Urquhart and the status of professor emeritus was conferred upon Epidemiology and Biostatistics professor John Koval.