Eric Lander is a core institute member and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. He served as President and Founding Director from Broad's inception until 2021. He is also professor of biology at MIT and professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School. A geneticist, molecular biologist, and mathematician, Lander has played a pioneering role in all major aspects of the reading, understanding, and medical application of the human genome—including being one of the principal leaders of the international Human Genome Project from 1990 to 2003. Lander has also played an active role in public policy, including serving as co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology from 2009 to 2017.
Education and early career. Lander was born on February 3, 1957, in Brooklyn, New York. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School, one of New York City’s public science high schools, where he was captain of the math team. In 1974, he won the Westinghouse Science Talent Search for work on number theory and was a member of the first U.S. team to compete in the International Mathematical Olympiad, in East Germany, where he received an individual silver medal and the U.S. team placed second.
In 1978 he earned a B.A. in mathematics from Princeton University, where he was a reporter for the student newspaper and served on the university’s budget-setting committee. He credits John McPhee’s legendary course, The Literature of Fact, for a life-long passion in non-fiction writing. He was valedictorian of his class and received the Pyne Prize, the highest distinction conferred by the university upon an undergraduate.
As a Rhodes Scholar from 1978 to 1981, he attended Oxford University, where he earned a D. Phil. in mathematics. His thesis, on algebraic combinatorics and coding theory, under the supervision of Peter Cameron, focused on applications of group representation theory to information theory and became a book, Symmetric Designs: An Algebraic Approach, published by Cambridge University Press (1983).
Faculty appointments. Following his graduate work, Lander took up a faculty position at Harvard Business School, where he served as assistant and associate professor from 1981 to 1990. He taught courses on managerial economics, decision analysis, and bargaining.
In 1983, his younger brother, Arthur, a developmental neurobiologist, suggested that, with his interest in coding theory, Lander might be interested in the question of how biological systems, including the brain, encode and process information. Lander began to audit courses at Harvard and to moonlight in laboratories around Harvard and MIT, learning about molecular biology and genetics. In 1985, he became captivated by human genetics, following discussions with David Botstein, an MIT professor and yeast geneticist who had conceived a way to map the genes responsible for rare single-gene diseases. Lander began to collaborate with Botstein.
In 1986, he was appointed a Whitehead Fellow of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, where he started his own laboratory. Lander was subsequently appointed as a tenured professor in MIT’s Department of Biology (1990-present) and a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research (1990-2008). Later, he was also appointed professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School (2004-present).
In 2004, he became the president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and a core member of the institute’s faculty.
In spring 2018, he served as the Steven and Maureen Klinsky Visiting Professor of the Practice for Leadership and Progress at the Harvard Law School, where he taught a class on science and law.
Scientific work. Lander’s scientific work—carried out in collaborations with many colleagues, including trainees, professional scientists, and colleagues at the Broad and around the world—has focused on understanding the human genome and its uses in medicine. In support of this work, he played a pioneering role in all aspects of the mapping, sequencing, and characterization of the human genome—including being one of the principal leaders of the international Human Genome Project from 1990 to 2003.
In 1985, Lander and Botstein began to work together to lay key foundations of modern human genetics. In a seminal paper in 1980, Botstein had described how one might create a genetic map of the human genome based on DNA polymorphisms and use it to systematically map genes for rare Mendelian diseases by tracing inheritance of polymorphisms in affected families.
The pair collaborated to create the first human genetic map: Botstein launched an experimental group to discover and genotype polymorphisms; Lander discovered and applied algorithms that made the analysis feasible. This work resulted in the first genetic linkage map of the human genome, published in 1987.
In parallel, Lander and Botstein discovered principles to extend human genetics from family-based mapping of rare monogenic disorders to population-based mapping of any disease or trait, including common polygenic diseases—by using much denser genetic maps to recognize shared ancestral segments in affected individuals.
Over the next 30 years, these genetic principles have led to the identification of more than 6,000 genes responsible for rare Mendelian diseases and more than 100,000 genetic loci contributing to scores of common human diseases and traits—including inflammatory diseases, heart disease, psychiatric disorders, diabetes, and many more. It also led to the identification of hundreds of genomic regions that have been under strong positive selection in recent human history, pointing to genetic variants that confer advantages, such as protection against infectious diseases.
To put these principles into practice, Lander devoted himself to creating dense maps of the human genome—including genetic maps, physical maps, and the sequence map of human DNA. As a scientific home for these and other genomic studies, he founded the Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research. Complementing his work on the creation of the first human genetic map in 1987, Lander’s group produced the first physical map of the human genome in 1995. He and his colleagues then became the leading contributors to the sequencing of the human genome (contributing one-third of the total), the analysis of the genome sequence, and the writing of the landmark paper reporting a draft sequence in 2001, and continued the work through the completion of a finished genome sequence in 2004. Using the finished sequence as a scaffold for sequence assembly, biologists have subsequently sequenced more than one million human genomes to date.
In parallel, Lander focused on developing and applying methods to uncover the vast majority of human genetic variation. He developed methods for large-scale discovery and genotyping; discovered the fundamental haplotype structure of the human genome; launched international collaborations to expand the discovery and characterization of variants; and pioneered methods to discover genes for complex diseases.
Lander and his team also decoded genomic information in the mouse. He created the first genetic maps of DNA polymorphisms and the first physical map of the mouse genome. He led sequencing of the mouse genome (and later dog, chimpanzee, marsupial, and other genomes)—and used comparative genome maps to identify the 21,000 human genes and discover millions of conserved non-coding elements, finding they are more abundant than protein-coding sequences. These evolutionary comparisons also revealed unexpected mechanisms for functional innovation, including a key role for transposons.
He also developed other genome-wide maps, including those of epigenome modifications and three-dimensional folding. The work has revealed the presence of many functional non-coding RNAs and rules governing gene regulation, including promoter-enhancer interactions.
Lander made important contributions to cancer genomics, including developing general methods to discover cancer subtypes based on gene expression and identifying new cancer genes based on genome sequencing. He chaired a committee for the National Cancer Institute that in 2005 proposed The Cancer Genome Atlas, a project to create a comprehensive map of cancer genomes.
Lander was a pioneer in ensuring that large-scale genomic information and tools are made freely and immediately available—beginning with his lab’s mouse genetic maps in the early 1990s and continuing with the Human Genome Project’s commitment to free data sharing.
Broad Institute. As the Human Genome Project was reaching its successful conclusion in the early 2000s, Lander sought to perpetuate the collaborative spirit that had grown around the genome center—including more than 65 interdisciplinary and interinstitutional collaborations in the Harvard and MIT community.
Following two and a half years of discussions with MIT and Harvard and an auspicious meeting with the Los Angeles-based philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad, Lander launched the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in 2004, with a historic $100 million gift from the Broad Foundation. A unique research institution focused on genomic medicine, the Broad spans Harvard, MIT, and Harvard-affiliated hospitals.
Now involving a community of more than 4,000 people — including 300 affiliated faculty — the Broad Institute has become a model for a new kind of collaborative biomedical research community, enabling creative scientists to tackle important challenges that span medicine, biology, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, and engineering.
Broad scientists have been involved in many systematic efforts to generate large datasets to fuel biological and medical studies in thousands of laboratories around the world. To maximize their impact, the data from such projects is made rapidly available to the entire scientific community through publicly available databases. In addition, Broad data scientists and software engineers create and share open-source software tools to easily store, access, analyze and visualize vast amounts of information from diverse sources.
Under Lander’s leadership, the Broad has had a deep commitment to diversity and inclusion. Women comprise the majority of the Broad’s employees, scientists, and senior leadership team. Its policies to support women scientists have been widely recognized, with the Broad Institute named one of Working Mother Magazine’s 100 Best Companies for four consecutive years. The institute has a longstanding summer research program for undergraduates around the country from groups that are underrepresented in the sciences, whose alumni include three African-American women who went on to win Rhodes Scholarships. A strong LGBTQIA+ community at Broad has played an active role in national policy, and has advanced strategies to better support individuals who identify as transgender.
Public Policy. Lander has played an active role in public policy and public service.
In 2008, Lander was appointed by President Obama as co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), serving for the entire term (2009 to 2017). PCAST is a council of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers, charged with advising the president and the White House on matters of national importance related to science, technology, and innovation. During Lander’s tenure, PCAST completed 39 studies at the request of the president, making recommendations concerning a wide range of subjects—including health information technology, antibiotic resistance, spectrum sharing, climate change, energy policy, advanced manufacturing, drug innovation, hearing aids, technologies to assist older Americans, systems engineering for healthcare, nanotechnology, cyber security, biosecurity, STEM education, forensic science, safe drinking water, networking and information technology, semiconductors, and the health of the U.S. science and technology enterprise. Many of the recommendations formed the basis for federal policy.
Since the late 1980s, Lander has played a key role in setting standards for forensic science. He served pro bono as an expert witness in one of the first cases involving DNA fingerprinting, which revealed serious flaws in its implementation by forensic laboratories. The work led to the setting of the rigorous standards used today, which have made the technology a powerful tool for identifying criminals and exonerating innocent people. Since 2004, he has served on the board of directors of the Innocence Project, an organization that has achieved the exoneration of more than 550 people in the U.S., including 21 who served time on death row. In 2016, Lander led PCAST’s study on “Forensic Science in Criminal Courts.”
Lander has also been involved in other issues at the interface of law and science. He played a role in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case (Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. (2013)) about whether human genes are patentable. He wrote an important amicus brief that helped shape the court’s oral argument and eventual decision that human’s own genomic DNA is a product of nature that is not patentable, but laboratory-created cDNA is patentable. In 2017 and 2019, he wrote an amicus brief in two cases on partisan gerrymandering (Gill v. Whitford and Rucho v. Common Cause), describing how modern computational analysis enabled a judicially manageable standard for recognizing when a redistricting map was an extreme outlier.
From 2016 to 2020, he served as a member of the Defense Innovation Board, which advises the Secretary of Defense on matters related to technological and organizational innovation, including the role of computer science and artificial intelligence in national defense.
Teaching. Lander is an avid teacher. He has mentored more than 100 trainees and early-career faculty, for which he received Harvard Medical School’s A. Clifford Barger Excellence in Mentoring Award.
For more than 25 years, he has co-taught MIT’s required introductory course in biology, which he co-developed in 1991 with Nancy Hopkins, an MIT colleague. He received MIT’s Everett Moore Baker Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1992.
In 2013, he created a popular free online course — 7.00x Introduction to Biology: The Secret of Life — on the MIT-Harvard edX platform. Lander received MIT’s School of Science Teaching Prize for Undergraduate Education for the course, which has been ranked among the top massively open online courses (MOOCs) available.
Science communication. Lander is also an active leader in communicating science to the broader public—for which he received the AAAS Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology in 2004. In December 1999, he gave a Millennium Lecture at the White House. In 2015, he delivered the Anatomy Lesson in Amsterdam, a revival of the 17th-century tradition.
In 2020, Lander created Brave New Planet, a seven-episode podcast series about new technologies with remarkable potential upsides for society, but also serious risks. By showing how smart, thoughtful, and caring experts grapple with important opportunities and challenges that don’t have simple answers, the podcast aims to engage the general public in the choices ahead and to bridge the gap between science and society.
Awards, Honors, and Recognitions. Lander’s honors and awards include the MacArthur Fellowship, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Albany Prize in Medicine and Biological Research, the Gairdner Foundation International Award of Canada, the Dan David Prize of Israel, the Mendel Medal of the Genetics Society in the U.K., the City of Medicine Award, the Abelson Prize from the AAAS, the Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology from the AAAS, the Woodrow Wilson Prize for Public Service from Princeton University, the James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award from MIT, and the William Allan Award from the American Society of Human Genetics.
He was elected as a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1997 and of the U.S. Institute of Medicine in 1999. He is also an elected member of seven other scientific academies, including the Swedish Royal Academy of Science, the European Molecular Biology Organization, and the Academy of Athens. He was also appointed by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He has received honorary degrees from 13 colleges and universities.
Lander is one of the most highly cited scientists. (His >550 published papers have been cited more than 500,000 times (h-index 289), according to Google Scholar).
Lander was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2004; by U.S. News and World Report as one of America’s Top 20 Leaders in 2006; and #2 on the MIT150 list of the most significant innovators in MIT’s 150-year history in 2011. In 2016, an artificial intelligence program, Semantic Scholar, named Lander the most influential biomedical scientist of the modern era—although (as is the case for much AI) how it reached this conclusion is completely unclear.
Outside Activities. Lander has served on governing and advisory boards for various government agencies, academic institutions, corporations, and scientific societies. He has been a founding scientific advisor of several biotechnology firms, including Millennium Pharmaceuticals and Foundation Medicine.
Family. A resident of Cambridge, he is married to Lori Weiner Lander, whom he met at college. She is an artist who creates oil paintings of women at work around the world and a community organizer who coordinates many activities, including Cambridge’s annual Martin Luther King Day of Service. Earlier, she practiced law at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom. They have three adult children, Jessica, Daniel, and David. They also have a golden retriever, Mochi.
Photo by Juliana Sohn