Robert Langer ’70 accepts the Cornell Engineering Distinguished Alumni Award.

Robert Langer ’70 receives engineering’s highest alumni honor

He is the most cited engineer in history. He holds more than 1,400 patents. His pioneering work in biotechnology, drug delivery and tissue engineering has made him one of the most prolific inventors in medicine, and he has co-founded more than 40 companies, including Moderna.

For this and many other achievements, Robert Langer ’70 received the Cornell Engineering Distinguished Alumni Award during a celebration hosted April 19 in the Duffield Hall Atrium.

Langer, who leads the nation’s largest academic biomedical engineering lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studied chemical engineering at Cornell. Since that time, he has distinguished himself as “one of the most creative, brilliant and influential alumni in Cornell’s history,” Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff said.

Langer’s research has led to new treatments for cancer and heart disease, advancements in the creation of engineered blood vessels and skin, and new methods for speeding drug discovery through organ-on-a-chip technology. Kotlikoff said Langer’s patents have been licensed or sublicensed to over 400 companies, and said his research has had a global impact – notably, the groundwork Langer laid for the development of mRNA vaccines.

Langer has been elected to all three American science academies and was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Science, the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering and the Charles Stark Draper Prize, among other honors. In 2015, he was named the Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year.

“Amazingly, with all of his accomplishments and accolades, Bob is the most humble and self-effacing person you’re ever likely to meet,” Kotlikoff said.

Presenting the alumni award was Lynden Archer, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering, who described Langer as fearless, a coalition builder and an innovator without equal.

“Among all of these distinctions, what stands out most for me is Bob’s impact as an adviser and mentor to countless students, postdoctoral scientists and members of the faculty,” Archer said.

Langer’s former students and mentees include several Cornell Engineering faculty members who spoke of his influence during the event. The speakers were Rong Yang, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Chris Alabi, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Shaoyi Jiang, the Robert Langer ’70 Family and Friends Professor; and David Putnam, professor of biomedical engineering and associate dean for innovation and entrepreneurship. Susan Daniel, the William C. Hooey Director of the Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, moderated the talks.

Langer acknowledged the many researchers that worked under him as he gave the event’s keynote address. He shared memories from his time at Cornell, which he called “a really terrific education” that “is still helpful to me today.”

Langer peppered his address with anecdotes about persevering through rejection and criticism of research ideas throughout his career – from his first professional research project developing angiogenesis inhibitors to block tumor growth, to his work enabling Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine – many of which improved the lives of countless people thanks to the persistence of Langer and those working under him.

“You can probably tell from the way I’m speaking that I'm very proud of how well all our students have done,” said Langer, who often says his mentees are his most memorable achievement.

The Cornell Engineering Distinguished Alumni Award was established in 2018 to recognize alumni whose accomplishments have produced meaningful impact in society and brought distinction to the Cornell engineering community.

Syl Kacapyr is associate director of marketing and communications for Cornell Engineering.

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Becka Bowyer