Eric S. Lander, Ph.D.
In many ways, Eric Landers career has taken as many twists and turns as there are in the helical strands of DNA that he now spends his time trying to decode. Before turning his attention to the human genome, Lander worked as a mathematician, an economist, and even a newspaper reporter, amassing an impressive array of awards and achievements along the way. If the equation that describes Landers life story has a common denominator, it would have to be his pursuit of intellectual challenge.
It all began with math. From the start, he was captivated by the power and beauty of numbers. Math is so elegant. Ideas dovetail perfectly with other ideas to form beautiful intellectual edifices, he says. Whats more, these mathematical constructions can be used to describe and understand the world around usmaking mathematics, to Landers mind, the purest product of human thought and the highest form of crystallized abstraction.
Lander was a master of mathematics. He placed second in a national math test and h ad the highest grades in his class at Stuyvesant High, one of New York Citys top schools for students who show a talent in math or science. His paper on quasi-perfect numberswhich the 17-year-old Lander proved exist only in theorywon him the Westinghouse Prize. His work at Princeton, where he received his undergraduate degree in mathematics, earned him a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University. There, Lander completed his graduate degree in pure mathematics. He was well on his way to living his life as a chalk-stained mathematician, but he realized something was missing. I loved pure mathematics, says Lander. But I didnt want to make it a life.
Mathematics is kind of monastic, he notes. Its a very lonely and individual pursuit. And Im not a very good monk. I like doing things with people.
This connection with people set into motion the series of happy accidents that would eventually draw Lander into a biology lab. When Lander returned from Oxford, a Princeton professor sent Landers résumé to a statistician at Harvards School of Public Health, who passed it along to someone at the Business School. Lander was offered a job at Harvardteaching economics. I knew no economics whatsoever, he admits. But I figured you can learn that stuff.
Lander was a quick study and a decent teacher, but economics did not provide him with the intellectual stimulation he needed. Fortunately, his little brother did. Arthur Lander, a neuroscientist by training, sent his sibling some papers about mathematical neurobiology. Lander realized that he couldnt fully understand the research until he learned a bit more about neurobiology. And he couldnt handle the neurobiology without studying some cell biology, which he couldnt grasp until he tackled molecular biology. So Lander opted to audit a biology course at Harvard and spent his evenings cloning fruit fly genes in the lab. I essentially picked up biology on the street corner, he says with a smile. Of course, in Cambridgehome of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technologypeople who hang out on street corners are just as likely to be discussing biology as anything else.
After a lecture one night, Lander ran into David Botstein, a geneticist at MIT who had developed methods for scanning the genome to find an individual gene that may play a role in disease. He was hoping next to develop a means to untangle the genetics behind more complex human disorders that are thought to arise from subtle disturbances in dozens or hundreds of genescancer, diabetes, schizophrenia, even obesity.
The two got to arguing (as good New Yorkers will) about how statistics could be used to search for the genes involved in complex human diseases. Soon, they had the outline of a solution. Lander secured a position as a fellow at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, where he set to work on the problem. The appointment was a bit unusualLander was still a professor at the Harvard Business Schoolbut he made enough progress to receive a MacArthur fellowship for his efforts.
Now a geneticist, Lander joined MIT as a tenured faculty member and a year later he launched the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research, becoming director of one of the first genome sequencing centers in the world. It was a chaotic career path, notes Lander. But everything worked out okay.
As head of the center, Lander helped build a series of maps that show the basic layout of the human and mouse genomes. In addition to providing the scaffolding needed to assemble the full human genome sequence, completed last year, these maps have proved useful for pinpointing the location of genes involved in disease. For Lander, thats what his efforts are all about. Disease is my motivation, he says. All the information about ones risk for disease is hiding in the genome. The goal is to tease out that information.
A cell already knows what it will be, what it will do, he adds. So its just a matter of persuading the cell to tell us what it knows. Lander knows how to be persuasive. Already he and his colleagues at the Whitehead Institute have teased out genes involved in diabetes and gained knowledge that will help scientists diagnose and treat cancers. Whitehead researchers have produced approximately one-third of the human genome sequence. But prying the secrets from the human genome is work that is really just beginning.
The first problem: The human genome is big. Imagine someone dumping 1,000 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in your living room, says Lander. How would you tackle all that information? Would you read all the spines first? Or would you start at aardvark and go from there?
But size isnt the only obstacle. The human genome is also written in code. Scientists are still learning how to decipher the information encrypted in the 3 billion letters that provide the instructions for assembling and operating a human being. The human genome may represent a book of life, but it is not yet an open book.
Looking at the genome is not like looking down at Earth from space and seeing all the clouds and oceans, says Lander. You have to think of the questions you want to ask. And then you have to figure out how to ask them.
Thats my main job, says Lander. Thinking about the questions.
Asking these questions often requires new techniques. And for someone who loves data, who wants answers, the waiting can be the hardest part. Most days are spent just getting things ready, says Lander. So you have to be reasonably good at delayed gratification. For example, before Lander and his team could build a map of the human genome, they spent months developing new biochemical procedures, new robotics, and new analytical software. Once everything was in place, making the map was fun.
Biology may involve a lot of grunt workcertainly more than mathematics doesbut Lander doesnt seem to mind. The highs, when they come, are better than anything you could imagine.
Getting to pursue new ideas and new directions, always thinking about new thingsits intoxicating, its addicting, he says. I could never give it up.
© 2013 Howard Hughes Medical Institute. A philanthropy serving society through biomedical research and science education.