Exchanges on Tour

9 November 2012

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Exchanges at the Frontier has been on tour! Wellcome Collection’s partnership with the BBC World Service, featuring the world’s leading scientists in conversation with philosopher AC Grayling, is in now in its fourth year. This year we thought it was high time to take the event to an international audience and visit a scientist on their home turf. So we ventured across the Atlantic for a very special edition in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jenny Jopson was there.

Just across the river from Boston, Cambridge is home to both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and as you’d expect  contains some extremely clever people. And none more so than our guest for the event, Dr Robert Langer, Professor of Biochemical Engineering and Director of the Langer Lab at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.  Among his many accolades is the Charles Stark Draper Award (considered to be the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineering) in 2002 and the Joseph Priestly Award for chemistry in 2012.

Robert Langer applies engineering principles to biological problems, working on projects as diverse as controlled delivery systems for genetically engineered proteins, the use of aerosols to deliver drugs, and tissue engineering. The Langer Lab is the biggest biochemical lab in the world and contains over 100 researchers from a wide variety of different fields. It is also said to be MIT’s biggest money maker, as many of Dr Langer’s discoveries have high value applications in the pharmaceutical industry. While monetary reward is a good thing for the continued funding of research, it’s not Robert Langer’s primary focus. “Some people are driven to science by enormous curiosity and the pure beauty of it. That’s not me. I think science is an incredibly powerful tool to change the world. That’s what I wanted to do,” he said in his Joseph Priestly Award speech earlier this year. “I had this dream of using my background in chemistry and chemical engineering to improve people’s lives.”

At the event itself, held in the auditorium of the Koch Institute just a few floors away from his vast lab, an audience peppered with fellow researchers and MIT alumni questioned Langer on his thoughts about the relationship between research and industry, the thrill of making new discoveries, and the future of bioengineering. There was a buzz to being there on his own territory, in the very building where his most exciting discoveries have been made. The remainder of this autumn’s series of Exchanges at the Frontier will be held back at Wellcome Collection in the UK, but this certainly won’t be the last time we venture abroad to meet world leading scientists on their home turf.

Jenny Jopson is an events officer at Wellcome Collection. An edited recording of this event will be broadcast on Saturday 1 December on the BBC World Service. We’ll be back at Wellcome Collection for the next event in the series, with Professor Jeremy Farrar on Thursday 22 November. Jeremy works at the forefront of emerging infectious disease in Southeast Asia and is an expert on avian flu. Book tickets online on the Wellcome Collection website.