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Lander ’78, innovator in genetics

Eric Lander ’78, valedictorian of his class and one of the leading contributors to the Human Genome and Innocence Projects, is the founding director of the Broad Institute, a genomics research institution of MIT and Harvard.


Currently a biology professor at MIT, Lander was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of Our Time in 2004. He is also the co-chair of President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

Lander was the recipient of the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service from the University in 1998. He was also named a recipient of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in 2013, the Harvey Prize in 2012, the Gairdner Award in 2002, and the Dickson Prize in 1997.

“Eric is all the Avengers rolled into one person,” University of Maryland, College Park physics professor S. James Gates, who serves on PCAST, said. “He is able to frame overarching questions in such a way that show audiences where the problems are and point toward solutions.”

Educational Endeavors

Lander’s brother, Arthur Lander, who is a biology professor at University of California, Irvine, said that Lander has always been driven and competitive since his high school days.

“He always wanted to be the best at everything and managed to achieve that in a lot of areas,” Arthur Lander said. “Eric also had the ability to get other people to do a tough task for him and like it.”


Lander attended Stuyvesant High School in New York City. During his high school years, he was an International Math Olympiad (IMO) Silver Medalistand was a member of the United States’ first IMO Team sent to East Germany in 1974. He was also the captain of the Math Team and was the winner of the Westinghouse Prize, now called the Intel Science Prize, for a paper on quasiperfect numbers.

“Princeton had the world’s best math department and I was a math person,” he said. “I went down and visited, and Princeton was gorgeous and so much different than the New York I had grown up in.”

At the University, Lander was a staff writer for The Daily Princetonian.Lander first started out as a news reporter covering the administration and wrote a few sports articles. However, he became interested in political polling after taking a class in freshman year with former Wilson School Professor Michael Kagay, who was an advisor to one of the early New York Times polls. In addition, Lander noted that he made a visit to the Gallup polling organization, which was headquartered in Princeton at the time.

During the 1976 presidential election, Lander reached out to four other Ivy League colleges and created the first Ivy League poll about the presidential candidates.

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Lance Knobel ’78, former Editor-in-Chief of the ‘Prince,’ said that Lander single-handedly made the ‘Prince’ polling operation on par with some national polling organizations.

Knobel added that though Lander was very humble, his natural brilliance made it very difficult for other students to be in the same class as him.

“There was never anything he did to show off or impress or make other people feel like they can’t keep up with him,” Knobel said. “He wore his brilliance very lightly, and he was a very good teacher.”

“He was such a nice guy and would bring us food like cookies or brownies,” Thomas said. “He was much more extroverted than what you would think about someone whose extracurricular sport was chess.”

While at the University, Lander met his wife, Lori Weiner '78. Lissa Poincenot ’78, who was one of Weiner’s roommates, recalled meeting Lander for the first time during freshman orientation.

“He was funny and he talked about the pranks he pulled in high school,” she said. “I thought I had finally met one person who was normal, because he never made me feel that his brilliance got in the way of connecting with me as a human being.”

In 1978, Lander graduated from the University with a degree in mathematics.He completed his senior thesis on algebraic K-theory with Professor of Mathematics Emeritus John Moore.

After graduating, Lander married Weiner, and then attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He obtained his doctorate in mathematics under then Oxford mathematics professor Peter Cameron.

Cameron, who is currently a professor at the University of St. Andrews, said Lander’s doctoral work centered on coding theory, which dealt with sending messages through a noisy channel so that errors could be corrected. He noted that the work that Lander did lent other biologists a different perspective when he was working on the Human Genome Project.

“His thesis gave him a very good grounding in discrete mathematics,” Cameron said. “The human genome is discrete, since it is basically a very long word in a four-letter alphabet.”

Upon completion of his doctorate, Lander realized that he didn’t want to pursue a career in pure mathematics as the field was not suited to his personality.

“It’s a somewhat monastic career, and I’m not a very good monk,” he said. “I like doing things with other people.”

After speaking with former Wilson School professor Edward Tufte, Lander explored the possibility of using his math skills to teach economics. Lander was then hired by Harvard Business School professor emeritus Howard Raiffa in 1981 to teach managerial economics, decision analysis, and bargaining.

“I didn’t know anything about managerial economics, but Raiffa figured that I would be able to learn it on my own,” Lander said.

After two years, Lander realized that he did not want to pursue a career in managerial economics and began to look for another field.

“I just loved that he kept trying new things,” Thomas said. “He was doing his math thing and felt isolated, so he ended up teaching economics, and he’s never even studied economics.”

Initiation into Biology

Lander’s foray into systems biology was spurred by his brother. Arthur Lander, who was at the University of California, San Francisco at the time, recalled suggesting that his brother’s math ability could help advance the field of biology.

“I told him that biology is very much in need of people who are mathematically sophisticated, so why not give it a try?” he said.

Lander had been exposed to biology and genetics in high school and college.He noted that his background in coding theory related to the brain, since the brain has a lot of coding in it.

At his brother’s suggestion, Lander took some courses on neurobiology and took a leave of absence from Harvard Business School. He spent some time in the lab of MIT professor H. Robert Horvitz, who later won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2002.

While at MIT, Lander became acquainted with then biology professor David Botstein in 1985, who was working onusing restriction fragment length polymorphisms (RFLPs) to determine which genes were passed from parent to child, and then used that information to determine the diseases people were likely to contract. Botstein said that in order to advance his project,he needed advanced statistical technology, which required a mathematician who could perform the necessary calculations.

“Within a week, Lander had a rudimentary solution that would do the trick, and it did,” Botstein said.

Botstein was previously the director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at the University. Heis now the Chief Scientific Officer of Calico, Google’s anti-aging health startup.

Lander said that after talking to Botstein and working with him, he became extremely interested in the field of human genetics.

“I dropped everything else I was doing and started working on human genetics,” he said.

Lander joined the Whitehead Institute, a nonprofit research and teaching institution in Cambridge, and became an assistant professor at MIT. In 1987, Lander received the MacArthur Fellowship, and in 1990, founded the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research.

MIT biology professor Chris Kaiser said that Lander made an excellent teacher because of his hands-on approach, charisma and ability to explain complex topics in everyday language.

“Eric has the students on the edge of their seats,” Kaiser said. “He is an amazing communicator of science.”

“Lander skates to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been,” Aiden said, citing Wayne Gretsky’s famous quote.

Initiatives in Genetics

In 1990, Lander launched and headed the largest contributor to the HGP, where he first worked on sequencing the mouse genome before moving on to the human one. One of his co-prinicipal investigators was University President Emerita Shirley Tilghman.

Lander noted that prior to the sequencing of the human genome, it was difficult to look comprehensively at all of the genes and regulatory controls and develop the big picture.

“It would be like being plunked down somewhere in North America in 1650 and trying to find the Grand Canyon without a map,” he said. “Versus today, where if you were plunked down somewhere, you could use your iPhone with Google Maps.”

The Human Genome Project resulted primarily in the identification of 4,000 genes related to various disorders, such as cancer and chronic diseases, and has helped in the understanding of evolution and human migration.

“Eric was one of the first people to understand the magnitude of the issue in a way that he could do something about it,” Guyer said.

University of Texas at Austin computer science and biology professor William Press explained that without Lander, there may not have been a Human Genome Project. Press was a former assistant professor of physics at the University, and is a current member of PCAST.

“Eric convinced people of the feasibility and importance of the sequencing of the human genome,” he said.

After the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, Lander noticed that while the project had brought scientists from across the Boston area together to work on genomics, there was no permanent center to foster this kind of collaboration.He began talking to Harvard and MIT about creating a new kind of institute that would combine genomics, chemistry and big data to further research on curing diseases.

Lander launched the Broad Institute in 2004, which now has 2,400 associates. He noted that the institute has the distinction of producing the highest average quality of scientific papers in the world.

“Forging that kind of a partnership to apply math to these issues of biology was really an innovative thing to do,” she said.

At the Broad Institute, Lander is currently working on assembling a library of DNA sequences used to determine a patient's likelihood of contracting a particular disease. He developed a molecular taxonomy for cancers, grouping different kinds of cancers based on the genes expressed by the different cancer cells and their responses to chemotherapy.

Lander also spearheaded an initiative in the 1990s for DNA-based criminal conviction. While attending a meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Lander met two lawyers who tried preventing the use of faulty DNA evidence in a trial.

“The evidence they showed me was terrible,” he said. “But I was willing to teach the lawyers enough molecular biology to do a good job in the pre-trial evidentiary hearing.”

Lander said that after hearing the appalling testimony of the laboratory that completed the DNA evidence analysis, he, along with colleagues, agreed to testify against the use of the DNA to convict the criminal. The court eventually sided with Lander, leading to one of the first cases where DNA fingerprinting was disregarded.

“It was scientifically practical in principle, but was so abysmal in practice,” he said.

This trial led to the founding of the Innocence Project, where DNA is used to exonerate criminals. The Innocence Project declined to comment.

In 2008, newly-elected President Obama nominated Lander to serve on the PCAST as its co-chair. Lander recalled being summoned to meet with Obama after Thanksgiving in 2008. Obama initially offered him a job in the administration, but Lander declined, since he was just about to launch the Broad Institute. Instead, he agreed to co-chair PCAST.

“PCAST is a spectacular group of individuals,” Lander said. “You have Nobel laureates and university presidents, which makes a great group.”

“He has a very broad knowledge base, and he has the ability to build consensus among highly accomplished and opinionated people,” Mirkin said.

Lander noted that the paper on antibiotic resistance led to an executive order to create a government-wide effort to combat the resistance.

PCAST has produced about 30 reports to date, with some more still in the pipeline. Gates said that one of PCAST’s first assignments was to assess the government’s preparation for an H1N1 virus outbreak. He noted that Lander went above and beyond the White House’s request.

“Eric single-handedly contributed to the security of our entire nation and helped prevent bio-terrorism,” Gates said.

He also noted that another of Lander’s contributions was in a report that concluded the best way to solve the current lack of radio spectrum was via spectrum sharing, instead of assigning a unique spectrum to each individual. Spectrum sharing decreases the spectrum capacity by a factor of 100,000, which Lander said is extremely efficient. Gates explained that Lander dubbed a term in the paper, Spectrum Access System, which is now used by major telecom researchers all over the world.

Lander added that another significant contribution from PCAST was in energy policy, where for the first time, the United States adopted a quadrennial energy review, or a consistent policy on energy. He noted that President Obama and the White House have been extremely encouraging and supportive.

“PCAST has the best client in the world you can hope for,” Lander said. “The President is deeply committed to science and technology and is engaged with our work.”

Other members of PCAST include Eric Schmidt ’76, the chairman of Google, and University physics professor Christopher Chyba.

Outside of science, Lander enjoys traveling, hiking and spending time with his wife and three children, including Jessica Lander ’10.

“But a week later, he wrote to me asking how he could help and gave some ideas,” she said. “I was amazed that he had time to get back to me about my son’s problems when he was about to solve the world’s problems.”