blog

Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy – confirmation needed

Eric Lander

by Deedra Abboud in Political
January 28, 2021 0 comments

Eric Lander is President Joe Biden‘s nominee for director of Office of Science and Technology Policy and adviser on science, which Biden has elevated to a cabinet post.

A geneticist, molecular biologist, and mathematician, he has played a pioneering role in all aspects of the reading, understanding, and biomedical application of the human genome. 

The Position: Advises on the scientific, engineering, and technological aspects of the economy, national security, homeland security, health, foreign relations, and the environment.

Eric Steven Lander was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1957, the son of Harold Lander, a lawyer, and Rhoda G. Lander, a social studies teacher.

He was captain of the math team at Stuyvesant High School and an International Mathematical Olympiad Silver Medalist for the United States, graduating from high school in 1974.

He attended and later taught at the Hampshire College Summer Studies in Mathematics program.

At the age of seventeen, he wrote a paper on quasiperfect numbers for which he won the Westinghouse Science Talent Search.

Lander attended Princeton University, where he graduated in 1978 as valedictorian. He completed his senior thesis, titled “On the structure of projective modules”, under the supervision of John Coleman Moore

He then attended Wolfson College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and he wrote his Doctor of Philosophy thesis on algebraic coding theory and symmetric block designs, under the supervision of Peter Cameron.

As a mathematician, Lander studied combinatorics and applications of representation theory to coding theory.

He enjoyed mathematics, but did not wish to spend his life in such a “monastic” career.

Unsure of what to do next, he took up a job teaching managerial economics at Harvard Business School; Lander also began writing a book on information theory.

At the suggestion of his brother, developmental biologist Arthur Lander, he started to look at neurobiology “because there’s a lot of information in the brain.”

In order to understand mathematical neurobiology, he felt he had to study cellular neurobiology; in turn, this led to studying microbiology and eventually, genetics. “When I finally feel I have learned genetics, I should get back to these other problems. But I’m still trying to get the genetics right.”

He later became acquainted with David Botstein, a geneticist working at MIT. Botstein was working on a way to unravel how subtle differences in complex genetic systems can become disorders like cancer, diabetes, schizophrenia, and even obesity.

The two collaborated to develop a computer algorithm to analyze the maps of genes.

Lander then joined the Whitehead Institute in 1986; that same year, he became an assistant professor at MIT.

Lander was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1987.

In 1989, Lander provided expert testimony in a criminal case: People v. Castro in New York. He showed that the then-current method of interpreting DNA evidence was flawed, and liable to give false positive matches, implicating innocent defendants.

Two of the defense lawyers in that case, Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, went on to found the Innocence Project, an organization that uses DNA analysis to exonerate wrongly-convicted prisoners. Lander is a member of the board of directors.

In 1990, he founded the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research (WICGR). The WICGR became one of the world’s leading centers of genome research, and under Lander’s leadership, it made great progress in developing new methods of analyzing mammalian genomes. It also made important breakthroughs in applying this information to the study of human genetic variation, and formed the basis for the foundation of the Broad Institute—a transformation that Lander spearheaded.

In 1999, Lander received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement.

In 2001, a draft of the human genome was published in the journal Nature. The Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, Center for Genome Research, was listed first (the order was according to total genomic sequence contributed). Lander was the first author named.

Lander helped establish and was the founding editor-in-chief of the academic journal the Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics; he remained editor through 2004.

Lander developed powerful methods for discovering the molecular basis of human diseases. Among them were the first methods for mapping the genes underlying polygenic disorders in which many genes play a role — including heart disease, diabetes, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease; these paradigms have led to more than 100,000 discoveries connecting regions of the human DNA with hundreds of diseases and traits, shedding light on the underlying biological mechanisms.

He has done pioneering work on human genetic variation; human population history; genome evolution; regulatory elements; long non-coding RNAs; three-dimensional folding of the human genome; and genome-wide screens to discover the genes essential for biological processes using CRISPR-based genome editing.

Lander was named one of Time magazine‘s 100 most influential people of our time (2004) for his work on the HGP. 

Lander’s most important work may be his development of a molecular taxonomy for cancers.

The cancers are grouped according to gene expression and information like their response to chemotherapy is collected for each group. The division of cancers into homogeneous subgroups will allow increased understanding of the molecular origins of these cancers and aid the design of more effective therapies. They have also identified a new type of leukemia called MLL and have identified a gene that may serve as a target for a new drug.

In 2012, he was awarded the Dan David Prize, an outstanding achievement award.

In 2013, Lander was awarded the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

Lander is a founding advisor of Foundation Medicine, a company that aims to bring comprehensive cancer genomic analysis to routine clinical care. 

He is also a co-founder of Verastem, a biopharmaceutical company focused on discovering and developing drugs to treat cancer by targeting cancer stem cells.

Lander is also a member of the USA Science and Engineering Festival‘s Advisory Board.

Lander has appeared in numerous PBS documentaries about genetics.

He was also listed at #2 on the MIT150 list of the top 150 innovators and ideas from MIT.

In 2017, he received the William Allan Award from the American Society of Human Genetics.

Lander was a principal leader of the international Human Genome Project.

On May 25, 2020, Pope Francis appointed him a member of the Pontifical Academy of Science.

Lander has stepped down from his leadership role and has taken an unpaid, academic leave-of-absence from his faculty positions at Broad, MIT, and Harvard to serve as White House Science Advisor to President Joseph R. Biden.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.