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Eric Lander
Eric Lander
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Eric Lander Interview

Founding Director, Broad Institute

June 19, 1999
Washington, D.C.

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  Eric Lander

This is not your first visit to the Academy of Achievement. You've been here before.

Eric Lander: For me this is a return trip to the American Academy of Achievement. I first came in 1974, as a high school senior, to the American Academy of Achievement after having won the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. And for me it was a very interesting experience. I had grown up in Brooklyn, New York, and really not gone all that far from Brooklyn in my days. Certainly never out West, and certainly never to a place like Salt Lake City, where that particular Achievement Banquet was held. It was remarkable meeting this range of students from all over the country, from so many different cultural backgrounds, meeting large numbers of people who had never heard of a bagel, for example. It was really interesting meeting some of the adult honorees, but I must say I was most struck and most remember the other students, the cross-section of American students I met then. So for me, it was a very eye-opening affair, and it's really charming and wonderful to be back now, 25 years later, and to look back on myself then, and see myself out in the audience with all these wonderful, bright high school students today. And I think it perhaps gives me just a little bit of a special relationship to talk to them about what their next 25 years may be like. I certainly imagined at the time that I had more of a plan than it turned out I did. I'm trying to give them some notion that, in fact, their lives are probably going to be like that, too. That whatever they're planning today, the most exciting things that will really happen in their lives are things that don't even exist yet.

They may not even be able to imagine what they're capable of.

Eric Lander: Oh, certainly. Things that they can't imagine doing, that they don't imagine they're capable of.

One of the perhaps problems for the brightest high school students is that everybody has such great expectations of them. Expectations are a good thing. Having parents and loved ones who have great expectations of you, it's great. There's something supportive about that. You should bask in it. But there's a certain sense in which expectations also narrow you in a way. They constrain you in a way. And there comes a really important time to break out of -- to escape from -- all those expectations. I think the very best students have the most expectations, and they feel it most important to live up to them. At some point, they've just got to decide not to live up to anybody else's expectations, but to go find out what they want to go do themselves.

Eric Lander Interview Photo

That's like what Linus said in the Peanuts comic strip: "There's no heavier burden than a great potential."

Eric Lander: That's right. I didn't know that Peanuts has this wisdom as well but this is absolutely right. Great expectations can be a great burden.

Today you're known to us as a professor of biology, a leader of the Human Genome Project, but you started out your career teaching math and economics at Harvard Business School. Was that where you started teaching?

Eric Lander: I actually started out teaching when I was in high school. Stuyvesant (High School) had a math team, and one of the responsibilities being the captain of the math team was to teach, every morning, five days a week, for an hour, to all the other people on the math team. So by age 14 or 15 I was teaching. When I was in college -- actually when I was a senior in high school -- I took a summer National Science Foundation Math Program, which was a wonderful program. I went back to teach in that for four summers after that, and that was a wonderful experience. I taught six days a week, six hours a day, for six weeks. When you teach like that, you can't prepare lesson plans. You've got to know what you're doing and go with the flow. I loved it, because the students were some of the best high school math students in the country, and you'd start off teaching a course on something, but halfway through the students would say, "We'd rather study something else." In fact, we gave a problem set one night, and the students got so enthusiastic about it that at 11 o'clock, when they were all going home, they said, "Why don't we instead make the course on this?" And they full well expected that tomorrow morning we would have the course switched over to that, and so we did. So in fact, by the time I got around to teaching as a professional, as a professor, I had had hundreds of hours of teaching under my belt, and I'm so grateful for that, because I think the experiences of teaching in those ways, teaching where you have to go with the flow, is something that young professors, young teachers, don't get enough of. When I look at graduate students today, I find that they get a couple of hours TA-ing -- teaching assistants -- in a course. And how in the world can you learn the really complicated business of teaching without a tremendous amount of trial and error, and just experience?

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

I gather that you were influenced by talking to your brother who is also a scientist.

Eric Lander: At a crucial point in my career my brother was a very important influence. After I left graduate school and pure mathematics, I didn't know what in the world I wanted to do, and by a series of accidents -- largely because I'd randomly met some economists and statisticians -- I got a job teaching as a professor at the Harvard Business School. Not the sort of thing that usually happens as an accident, but it was a very lucky accident. I taught managerial economics there for nine years.

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