When Alexander Langerman was growing up, he loved how science seemed to be able to explain how everything worked. From the world around him to his own body, scientific ideas and principles shed light on all of it.
Even more than that, Langerman liked that scientific knowledge could be applied in ways that made a clear difference. "I thought of physicians as 'action scientists,' " he says. "They were people who could bring science to you, the consumer."
So when he arrived at Cornell College in Iowa, it was natural that he'd be drawn to the sciences as he fulfilled his pre-med requirements. Indeed, he earned a degree in biochemistry. But he also got a second degree in philosophy. Because as much as he enjoyed the rigor of biology and chemistry, he also liked the idea of putting his work within a broader context. "Humans are more than just a beaker," he says. "And this very much affects how I approach my job."
Today, as an assistant professor of surgery at the University of Chicago Medicine, he specializes in surgeries for head, neck, and skull base disorders, including cancer and other tumors. His current research, meanwhile, looks at how patients being treated for head and neck cancer work with their doctors to make shared decisions about their treatment.
While doctors typically pull clinical data to determine the best course of treatment for a patient, the numbers aren't always illuminating. "When it comes to clinical care, most decisions are not black and white," Langerman says. "A patient's values may inform how doctors make decisions—surgery or nonsurgical therapy, for example—and their best possible outcomes."
Langerman says that most doctors have experienced this delicate decision-making dance between themselves and patients. But by approaching the complex and murky waters of human interactions with data-driven rigor, he believes he can build a system to improve an otherwise informal process. Langerman hopes to find tools, from better data to smarter questions that will allow doctors and patients to work together efficiently and make decisions that support both the doctor's recommendations and a patient's values.
Langerman appreciates the different types of problem-solving skills that his work as surgeon and researcher require. As a surgeon, he gets immediate gratification from diagnosing the patient in front of him. As a researcher, he wrestles with broader issues. "With my research now, the questions I'm addressing can have an impact well beyond me as a single practitioner," he says.
For aspiring scientists, he advises using the scientific method not just as an approach to research, but also as an approach to a career. He's constantly testing new ideas, tweaking his tactics, and applying what he's learned from previous projects as he moves forward. "Earlier in my life, I believed that whatever I was working on then was the thing I had to commit my life to," he says. "But it's okay if it's not. It's important to use all of your experiences to learn what interests you and what doesn't. That's how you discover what your life's work will be."