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Eric Lander
Eric Lander
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Eric Lander Biography

Founding Director, Broad Institute

Eric Lander Date of birth: February 3, 1957

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  Eric Lander

Eric Steven Lander was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. His father was disabled by multiple sclerosis through much of Eric's childhood and died when Eric was 11. Although Eric's mother had been trained as an attorney, opportunities for women lawyers were few at the time, so she worked as a teacher to provide for Eric and his younger brother Arthur. In junior high school, Eric became fascinated by mathematics. At New York's Stuyvesant High School -- a public school specializing in math and science -- Lander led the school's math team, and won a silver medal for the United States in the International Mathematical Olympiad. At age 17, a paper he wrote on quasiperfect numbers won the national Westinghouse Science Talent Search. He attended the Academy of Achievement's 1974 program in Salt Lake City as a student delegate.

Eric Lander Biography Photo
Lander continued to excel in mathematics as an undergraduate at Princeton University, but he also found time to work as a reporter on The Daily Princetonian. Intrigued by politics, polling and statistics, he persuaded the Gallup organization to support his poll of university students in the 1976 presidential election. In an elective class on constitutional law, he met fellow student Lori Weiner for the first time. Eric made a point of joining campus committees and other activities Weiner was involved in. The two became friends quickly, but romance blossomed more slowly.

Eric Lander graduated from Princeton in 1978. He was valedictorian of his class and was awarded the Pyne Prize, the university's highest undergraduate honor. He pursued graduate studies at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, studying combinatorics and applications of representation theory to coding theory. He completed his Ph.D. thesis on symmetric design but had grown restless in the world of pure mathematics. On returning to the United States, he was certain he wanted to marry Lori Weiner but was less sure how to apply his training in mathematics.

Eric Lander Biography Photo
Rather than consulting his former math professors at Princeton, he sought advice from the university's political scientists and statisticians, who urged him to try his luck in Boston, where the large concentration of universities might lead to unexpected opportunities. To his surprise, Lander was offered a job as lecturer in managerial economics at Harvard Business School. The field was new to Lander, but he plunged ahead, and became a popular lecturer and professor. He married Lori, and the two started a family.

Although Lander enjoyed his teaching duties at Harvard, he had not found the career he was looking for. He was completing a book on information theory when his brother Arthur, now a physician and neurobiologist, suggested he apply this interest to the most complex information system of all -- the human brain. The proposal excited Eric Lander, but the more he explored the subject, the more he felt the need for basic training in biology. At Harvard, the business school professor sat in on undergraduate lab classes taught by graduate assistants. He quickly came to enjoy laboratory work and began to moonlight in the molecular genetic laboratory. Lander took a leave of absence from Harvard to pursue genetics research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His mathematics background proved invaluable in identifying the minute genetic variations that predispose individuals to a host of disorders, including cancer, diabetes, schizophrenia and obesity.

Lander made the rounds of international conferences, speaking on the application of mathematics to genetics. In 1986, he joined the MIT-affiliated Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. The following year he received a MacArthur Fellowship -- often called the "genius grant" -- to further develop mathematical techniques of genetic analysis. He was offered tenured positions in the biology departments at both Harvard and MIT. He accepted the position at MIT first, although his subsequent career has bridged both institutions.

Eric Lander Biography Photo
The professor of managerial economics had become a professor of biology, but his management studies did not go to waste. In 1990 Lander founded a new Center for Genome Research at Whitehead and MIT (WICGR). The new center became a major partner, with the National Institutes of Health and other research labs, in the international Human Genome Project (HGP). The HGP intended to make its data freely available to the public, and soon found itself in a race with the for-profit company Celera Genomics, which planned to patent its findings.

Lander pushed his team to complete their work ahead of schedule, developing new methods for sequencing human genes. The target date moved from 2005 to 2003. The public draft of the human genome was published in the journal Nature in 2001, years ahead of schedule. The WICGR was listed first among the article's contributors, with Eric Lander as the first named author.

The work of Lander's team at WICGR continued, sequencing genes of the mouse, pufferfish, Neurospora crassa fungus and Sacharomyces cerevisiae yeasts. These organisms are among the most useful for basic medical research, easing the identification of key gene regulatory elements throughout the plant and animal kingdoms.

Eric Lander Biography Photo
In 2003, Lander became Founding Director of the Broad Institute, merging the genome research efforts of the Whitehead Institute, MIT and Harvard. The Broad Institute is dedicated to creating comprehensive tools for genomic medicine, and developing their application to the understanding and treatment of disease. By assembling a catalogue of the variations of the human genome, Lander and his associates are determining which variations are linked to which diseases, identifying precise molecular targets for potential therapies. Lander has developed a molecular taxonomy of cancer, grouping each form of cancer according to gene expression, determining their relative susceptibility to chemotherapy or other treatments. In 2004, Time magazine name Eric Lander one of the "100 Most Influential People of Our Time."

Today, in addition to directing the Broad Institute, Eric Lander continues to participate in teaching the undergraduate introductory biology course at MIT. Shortly after the 2008 presidential election, president-elect Barack Obama named Eric Lander to co-chair his Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

This page last revised on Jan 24, 2012 18:49 EDT
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