Moderna co-founder advises Alfred University graduates to pursue passion, make world better
Dr. Robert S. Langer, world-renowned biomedical engineer and co-founder of more than 40 biotechnology companies including COVID-19 vaccine maker Moderna, has followed four guiding principles throughout his career as a research scientist.
ALFRED, NY (May 14, 2022) – Dr. Robert S. Langer, world-renowned biomedical engineer and co-founder of more than 40 biotechnology companies including COVID-19 vaccine maker Moderna, has followed four guiding principles throughout his career as a research scientist.
On Saturday, May 14, Langer—a professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Departments of Chemical Engineering and Biological Engineering, and faculty member in MIT’s David H. Koch Institute of Integrative Cancer Research—delivered the keynote address at Alfred University’s 186th Commencement, relating to graduates the role those principles have played in his professional success.
Langer is viewed as the founder of the field of tissue engineering in regenerative medicine, and is the pioneer of hundreds of technologies, including controlled release and transdermal drug delivery systems, which allow for the non-invasive administration of drugs through the skin.
“I hope to leave you with some simple messages,” Langer said. “First when you choose a job, follow your passion—choose something you love, not what makes the most money. Second, try to dream big dreams—dreams that can change the world and make it a better place. Third, oftentimes you will run into roadblocks but, no matter how bad things look, don’t give up. And fourth—treat all people with respect and kindness.”
Langer earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University and his doctoral degree, also in chemical engineering, from MIT. He said when he finished his graduate studies, he was unsure what to do professionally. It was in the 1970s, when gasoline was in high demand, and professionals in his field were being paid well to work for oil companies. “I got 20 job offers from oil companies—four from Exxon alone,” he said. On a flight home from an interview with Exxon in Louisiana, he realized that was not the career path he wanted to follow.
“What did I want to do?” he asked. “Well, I had this dream of using my background to improve people’s lives.”
To that end, Langer would take a position as a researcher at Harvard and Boston Children’s Hospital, where he would work on two related problems: trying to discover the first substance that could stop cancer blood vessels from growing (and thus stop tumor growth); and developing tiny particles – called microparticles and nanoparticles – that might be able to deliver these and other large molecular weight substances such as proteins or RNA to the body.
While the research was met with skepticism in the scientific community, Langer persevered.
His research led the discovery of the first blood vessel inhibitors which fight cancer. It took 28 years from his earliest publication in this area—a 1976 article in the Journal of Science— until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first blood vessel inhibitor. Today, such inhibitors, like Avastin, Lucentis, and Eylea, are among the most successful biopharmaceuticals in the world for treating cancer and eye diseases such as macular degeneration. They have been used to treat hundreds of millions of patients.
“When we started developing vaccines to treat COVID, the Boston Globe ran a front-page article on this entitled “This is not how you do science” with my picture underneath it,” Langer recalled. “But Moderna and its terrific employees, some of whom are my former students, never gave up. Today the Moderna vaccine and one somewhat like it made by Pfizer and BioNTech – also using nanoparticles – is used all over the world.”
Langer’s final piece of advice to graduates involved how they treat others.
“Many people ask me why the people in our lab have done well,” he said. “I like to think it’s because we’ve tried to treat everyone with respect and kindness; treating people the way you hope they would treat you. No matter what you do with your life career-wise, there is nothing more important than being a good, caring human being.”
Langer and Charlie Joyce, a Wellsville, NY, resident and member of the University’s Board of Trustees, were awarded honorary degrees Saturday.
Langer received a Doctor of Science degree, honoris causa, for his work in biomedical engineering research. He holds more than 1,400 granted or pending patents, which have been licensed or sublicensed to more than 400 companies. He is the author of more than 1,500 articles, and with more than 363,000 citations, he is the most cited engineer in history and fourth most cited individual in any field of academic research. He is recipient of 36 honorary degrees and has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Medicine, and the National Academy of Inventors.
Joyce, past president and CEO of Otis Eastern Corp.—one of the energy industry’s leaders in the construction of pipelines transporting oil, natural gas, and petroleum products—received a Doctor of Commerce degree, honoris causa.
A member of the Alfred University Board of Trustees since 2001, Joyce has been a generous supporter of the University. He and Alfred University alumna Sherry Walton ’80, ’88 MS Ed. provided funding for the Joyce & Walton Center, which opened in 2014, and the Joyce & Walton Strength and Conditioning Center, which opened in 2018.
A generous commitment from Joyce and Walton in 2018 helped provide support to attract Alfred University’s next vice president of Student Affairs; helped launch Alfred University’s new leadership minor; and underwrote the offering of the “LEAD 301: Improving Alfred University” course taught by the dean of the Inamori School of Engineering and the president of Alfred University. Joyce joined with fellow trustee Marlin Miller ’54, HD ’89, ’19 to underwrite the hiring of a consulting firm to help Alfred University develop a residence life master plan. In 2018, Joyce made a generous commitment of $2 million toward enhancing Alfred University’s athletic facilities on Jericho Hill.
Joyce—a resident of Wellsville and native of nearby Andover, NY— has long been active in supporting charitable organizations in the Wellsville community. In 2012 his philanthropy established the Catholic Charities Food Pantry of Wellsville. In November 2019, he was honored for his selfless support of others as Catholic Charities renamed its Wellsville food pantry the Joyce Family Food Pantry and Outreach.
“It is very humbling to be on the same stage as my fellow honorary degree recipients,” said Joyce, who recognized his fellow trustees and members of his family in attendance.
Joyce remarked that while he is not an Alfred University graduate, the University has long been a part of his life—he recalled growing up in Andover and skipping school each year to attend the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in Alfred—and he noted the vital role the University plays in the economic well-being of the largely rural Southern Tier of western New York.
“The University serves as a cornerstone to the region. It has a huge impact on the quality of life in the area,” Joyce said. The importance of Alfred University to the region is why Joyce serves on the Board and supports the University through his philanthropy.
“I’ve been a trustee for more than 21 years. We’ve faced a lot of challenges, COVID being the most complex,” he commented. “One thing that has been consistent has been the dedication and love for this University by our trustees, the students, faculty, and students. “We always ask, ‘How can we make Alfred better for the students?’ That’s what makes this place so special.”
Addressing their classmates were 2022 Marlin Miller Outstanding Senior Award recipients Merveille Bulonza, a biology/pre-med major (chemistry minor) from Cheektowaga, NY, and Makenzie Cashmer, a mechanical engineering major (minors in mathematics and computer science) from Weedville, PA.
Winners of the Marlin Miller Outstanding Senior Award are chosen based on scholarship, extracurricular achievement, personal character and conduct, and nominations by faculty, students, staff, or alumni. The award was established to honor Alfred University alumnus Marlin Miller ’54, H ’89, H ’19 one of Alfred University’s most generous supporters. Miller has been a member of Alfred University’s Board of Trustees since 1972.
Bulonza, who aspires to attend medical school after graduation, served as president of the Student Senate from March 2020 to March 2021 and is also former secretary to the Student Senate. She is a recipient of numerous scholarships and awards, including the Diana Mossip Memorial Scholarship and the Health Professions Scholarship, and participated in the Alfred University Honors Program.
She graduated from Alfred University’s Women’s Leadership Academy, where her capstone project focused on improving student leadership training and increasing leadership opportunities on campus for all students.
The daughter of Joseph Bulonza Tembo and Nabintu Namwira, Bulonza is a graduate of Cleveland Hill High School in Buffalo. She spoke of how her family, and the people she has known at Alfred encouraged her to pursue her ambitions.
“We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘never give up on your dreams.’ Not giving up on your dreams means believing in yourself,” she said. “To my parents, I thank you for instilling in me a passion to learn. To my professors, I thank you for seeing the potential in me, even when I didn’t see it myself.”
Bulonza’s advice to her fellow graduates was to set their own standards for success and achievement and pursue their dreams and passions. “No one can measure your success except yourself. Only you can measure how far you’ve gone and how far you will go.”
Cashmer is a member of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society, the Society of Women Engineers, has served as president and vice president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, participated in the Alfred University Honors Program, and was also a member of the Alfred University women’s soccer team. She has served as a teaching assistant for the Alfred University Division of Chemistry and as a student instructor in Calculus I, II, and III.
She attended Alfred University on a four-year U.S. Army Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship and is the recipient of the Society of American Military Engineers (SAME) Award. Upon graduation, Cashmer will commission as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
The daughter of David and Kimberly Cashmer, Makenzie is a graduate of Elk County Catholic High School in St. Marys, PA.
Cashmer spoke of the various “villages” at Alfred University that have supported her and helped her grow—from the time she left her hometown to come to Alfred through her graduation Saturday.
“Some say it takes a village to raise a child; no, it takes a village like Alfred to raise a child. At Alfred, I didn’t have to do it all on my own,” she said. Those villages included the women’s soccer team, the ROTC program and military affairs staff at Alfred, and her faculty. She spoke with pride of how the ROTC program has grown during her time at Alfred, and how the experience has shaped her life.
“Over the span of four years, we now have a thriving (ROTC) program. When I first got to Alfred, I planned on serving (in the Army) part-time, but I realized that full-time active duty was my true calling,” she said.
“I will carry all my Alfred memories close to me heart,” she said, advising fellow graduate, “Wherever you go next, find a village. If there isn’t one there, create one.”
The University recognized as the following top students (highest GPAs in each school and college) for the Class of 2022:
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Karina Morling, athletic training major from Canisteo, NY, who earned a 4.00 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale.
School of Art and Design: Samuel LaPell, fine arts major from East Nassau, NY, who earned a 4.00 grade-point average.
Kazuo Inamori School of Engineering: Austin Schunke, a materials science and engineering major from Springville, NY, with a 4.00 grade-point average.
College of Business: Emma Johnson, business administration major from Sanborn, NY, with a GPA of 3.99.
Alfred University President Mark Zupan closed Commencement by congratulating graduates for their achievements and commending them for how they met and overcame challenges—the biggest being the COVID pandemic and its impact on higher education—during their time at Alfred.
“Today is a momentous occasion for the member of the Class of 2022,” Zupan said. “What you’ve done to get to this point—there were times the last two years especially, that seemed like a combination if 1918, 1929, 1939, and 1968. The fact that you persevered and earned those hard-earned degrees, you have our respect, our recognition, and our gratitude.”
Alfred University awarded 303 baccalaureate degrees, 65 master’s degrees and five doctoral degrees to graduates who completed their degree requirements in May 2022. The University has already conferred 121 baccalaureate degrees, 28 master’s degrees, and four doctoral degrees to August 2021, December 2021, and 2022 Allen Term (January) graduates.
Graduates from the University’s AU-NYC program—who have earned master’s degrees in School Counseling and Public Administration, or completed Advanced Certification programs in Mental Health Counseling and School Counseling, at satellite campuses in New York City—will be honored in a separate ceremony on June 16 at 5:30 p.m. at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, NY.