Powers in Numbers (Eric Lander)

Profiles in Science: Eric Lander
Gina Kolata
New York Times

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — His Ph.D. is in pure mathematics, in a subfield so esoteric and specialized that even if someone gets a great result, it can be appreciated by only a few dozen people in the entire world. But he left that world behind and, with no formal training, entered another: the world of molecular biology, medicine and genomics.

As founding director of the Broad Institute of Harvard and M.I.T., he heads a biology empire and raises money from billionaires. He also teaches freshman biology (a course he never took) at M.I.T., advises President Obama on science and runs a lab.

Eric Lander — as a friend, Prof. David Botstein of Princeton, put it — knows how to spot and seize an opportunity when one arises. And he has another quality, says his high school friend Paul Zeitz: bravery combined with optimism.

“He was super smart, but so what?” said Dr. Zeitz, now a mathematics professor at the University of San Francisco. “Pure intellectual heft is like someone who can bench-press a thousand pounds. But so what, if you don’t know what to do with it?”

Eric Lander, he added, knew what to do. And he knew how to carry out strong ideas about where progress in medicine will come from — large interdisciplinary teams collaborating rather than single researchers burrowed in their labs.

So how did he end up at the Broad Institute, going from the most solitary of sciences to forging new sorts of collaborations in a field he never formally studied? What sort of person can make that journey?

Dr. Lander’s story can be told as a linear narrative of lucky breaks and perfect opportunities. But he doesn’t subscribe to that sort of magical thinking. To him, biography is something of a confection: “You live your life prospectively and tell your story retrospectively, so it looks like everything is converging.”

Yet given that limitation to recreating a personal history, Dr. Lander’s story is, at the very least, unusual.

A Math Club Standout

Now 54, Eric Steven Lander grew up in Flatlands, a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, raised by his mother — his father died of multiple sclerosis when Eric was 11.

“Nobody in the neighborhood was a scientist,” Dr. Lander said. “Very few had gone to college.”

His life changed when he took an entrance exam and was accepted at the elite Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. He joined the math team and loved it — the esprit de corps, the competition with other schools, the social aspect of being on the team.

“I found other kids, ninth graders, who also loved math and loved having fun,” he said.

He was so good that he was chosen for the American team in the 1974 Mathematics Olympiad. To prepare, the team spent a summer training at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

This was the first time the United States had entered the competition, and the coaches were afraid the team would be decimated by entrants from Communist countries. (Indeed, the Soviet Union placed first, but the Americans came in second, just ahead of Hungary, which was known for its mathematics talent.)

Dr. Zeitz was Dr. Lander’s roommate that summer. The two recall being the only teammates who did not come from affluent suburban families, and who did not have fathers. But Eric stood out for other reasons.

“He was outgoing,” Dr. Zeitz recalled. “He was, compared to the rest of us, definitely more ambitious. He was enthusiastic about everything. And he had a real charisma.” Team members decided that Dr. Lander was the only one among them whom they could imagine becoming a United States senator one day.

At first, though, it looked as if the young mathematician would follow a traditional academic path. He went to Princeton, majoring in mathematics but also indulging a passion for writing. He took a course in narrative nonfiction with the author John McPhee and wrote for the campus newspaper.

He graduated as valedictorian at age 20, won a Rhodes scholarship, went to Oxford and earned a mathematics Ph.D. there in record time — two years. Yet he was unsettled by the idea of spending the rest of his life as a mathematician.

“I began to appreciate that the career of mathematics is rather monastic,” Dr. Lander said. “Even though mathematics was beautiful and I loved it, I wasn’t a very good monk.” He craved a more social environment, more interactions.

“I found an old professor of mine and said, ‘What can I do that makes some use of my talents?’ ” He ended up at Harvard Business School, teaching managerial economics.

He had never studied the subject, he confesses, but taught himself as he went along. “I learned it faster than the students did,” Dr. Lander said.

Yet at 23, he was growing restless, craving something more challenging. Managerial economics, he recalled, “wasn’t deep enough.”

He spoke to his brother, Arthur, a neurobiologist, who sent him mathematical models of how the cerebellum worked. The models “seemed hokey,” Dr. Lander said, “but the brain was interesting.”

His appetite for biology whetted, he began hanging around a fruit-fly genetics lab at Harvard. A few years later, he talked the business school into giving him a leave of absence.

He told Harvard he would go to M.I.T., probably to learn about artificial intelligence. Instead, he ended up spending his time in Robert Horvitz’s worm genetics lab. And that led to the spark that changed his life.

 For the complete profile plus a video interview, please click here