Investiture: Class of 2010
The Investiture ceremony honoring Thayer School’s Class of 2010 was held June 12 at the Hopkins Center. Dean Joseph J. Helble presided over the presentation of hoods, caps, and awards to 108 recipients of Bachelor of Engineering and graduate degrees.
Dr. Robert S. Langer of MIT received Thayer School’s Robert Fletcher Award for distinguished achievement and service. A renowned biotechnology entrepreneur, Langer let students in on the struggles he encountered early in his career.
“I had this dream of using my background to improve people’s lives,” he said. “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 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 Dr. Judah Folkman at Harvard. He said, ‘sometimes he hires unusual people.’ So I took what, at that time, seemed to all 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: trying to discover the first substance that could stop cancer blood vessels (and thus stop cancer) and 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 just didn’t know that. 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.
“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. 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, people not believing in my research, and having little hope of even keeping my job — and it was the lowest level academic position one could have. I was fortunate, however, that within a year or two, scientists in the pharmaceutical industry started using some of the principles and even some of the inventions I had made, and things began to turn around, and I eventually did get promoted. More importantly, I like to think that the discoveries we’ve made both in cancer and drug delivery have helped improve the lives and health of millions of people.
“So when you graduate, the path you may follow may often be confusing, often unclear, and sometimes it’s scary. It certainly was for me. But I hope you will all 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, create a new engineering principle, start a new company or whatever your dream is, that people 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, if you really stick to things and work hard, there is very little that is truly impossible.”
For the full text of Langer’s speech and more on Investiture, see 2010 Investiture.
Class of 2010 Graduates
- Doctor of Philosophy — 7
- Master of Science — 14
- Master of Engineering Management — 30
- Bachelor of Engineering — 57
- A.B., Engineering Sciences — 65
Barry MacLean ’60 Th’61 received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during Dartmouth’s June 13 Commencement exercises. Citing MacLean’s 36 years on Thayer School’s Board of Overseers, President Jim Yong Kim stated: “You have worked tirelessly to support the generations of Dartmouth students who followed you. Your goal has been to ensure that they receive an extraordinary education and gain the skills they require to meet the ever-changing needs of our contemporary business world and society.” Read the full citation.