Thursday, January 05, 2012

Eric Lander profile

The NYTimes ran a nice profile of Broad Institute director Eric Lander a few days ago.

Interestingly, the article emphasizes several factors aside from his formidable intellect that are responsible for his success as a scientist: curiosity, openness, extraversion, ambition, drive ...

NYTimes: ... He was so good that he was chosen for the American team in the 1974 Mathematics Olympiad. To prepare, the team spent a summer training at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

This was the first time the United States had entered the competition, and the coaches were afraid the team would be decimated by entrants from Communist countries. (Indeed, the Soviet Union placed first, but the Americans came in second, just ahead of Hungary, which was known for its mathematics talent.)

Dr. Zeitz was Dr. Lander’s roommate that summer. The two recall being the only team members who did not come from affluent suburban families, and the only ones who did not have fathers. But Eric stood out for other reasons.

“He was outgoing,” Dr. Zeitz recalled. “He was, compared to the rest of us, definitely more ambitious. He was enthusiastic about everything. And he had a real charisma.” Team members decided that Dr. Lander was the only one among them whom they could imagine becoming a United States senator one day.

At first, though, it looked as if the young mathematician would follow a traditional academic path. He went to Princeton, majoring in mathematics but also indulging a passion for writing. He took a course in narrative nonfiction with the author John McPhee and wrote for the campus newspaper.

He graduated as valedictorian at age 20, won a Rhodes scholarship, went to Oxford and earned a mathematics Ph.D. there in record time — two years. Yet he was unsettled by the idea of spending the rest of his life as a mathematician.

“I began to appreciate that the career of mathematics is rather monastic,” Dr. Lander said. “Even though mathematics was beautiful and I loved it, I wasn’t a very good monk.” He craved a more social environment, more interactions.

“I found an old professor of mine and said, ‘What can I do that makes some use of my talents?’ ” He ended up at Harvard Business School, teaching managerial economics.

He had never studied the subject, he confesses, but taught himself as he went along. “I learned it faster than the students did,” Dr. Lander said.

Yet at 23, he was growing restless, craving something more challenging. Managerial economics, he recalled, “wasn’t deep enough.”

He spoke to his brother, Arthur, a neurobiologist, who sent him mathematical models of how the cerebellum worked. The models “seemed hokey,” Dr. Lander said, “but the brain was interesting.”

His appetite for biology whetted, he began hanging around a fruit-fly genetics lab at Harvard. A few years later, he talked the business school into giving him a leave of absence.

He told Harvard he would go to M.I.T., probably to learn about artificial intelligence. Instead, he ended up spending his time in Robert Horvitz’s worm genetics lab. And that led to the spark that changed his life. ...


highly_adequate said...

What I find odd about this portrait of Lander is how little mention is made of any idea that he, in particular, has contributed to the field. He comes across as more of a CEO type than a scientist type. Other notable scientists -- David Baltimore comes to mind -- also went the path of administrative leader, but, before doing so, had made a major impact on their field scientifically.

One suspects that his insistence on turning science into a social enterprise has come at the expense of his own potential contributions.

All of which is fine; each of us has our strengths and weaknesses, and he's certainly making quite a positive contribution in his own way. But it's important to stay clear on what those contributions really are.

highly_adequate said...

It's kind of interesting to contrast Lander's case to that of Craig Venter, who, as a quite desultory student in HS, began his college career in a community college -- though he did ultimately get his Ph.D. from UCSD. I think it's fair enough to say that Venter has been a far bolder thinker and indeed executive than Lander. I hardly expect that Venter's strictly mathematical abilities compare to the prodigious talent of Lander, but he seems to have found what seems like a distinctly more successful path in the field.

steve hsu said...

Hard to point to Landers' signal research contribution, as you note.

Venter's math brain:

Many techers on the computation team at Celera.

Higher recommend this book:

gs said...

I had the same thought as highly_adequate. However, Lander is trying to create "a new kind of research institute"; maybe there's an analogy with building the first big particle accelerator. If the institute achieves any of its ambitious goals, he will deservedly get a major share of the credit; such a success might lead to structural changes in how biological research is pursued and how therapies are developed.

Then Lander could write a book titled A New Kind of Big Science...

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