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Dr. Robert Langer

The Keyes Seminar Day, a lively day of speaking engagements for Upper School students, has been one of Milton’s most important traditions since 1977. It is named in honor of its founder, former faculty member Peter Keyes, a legendary promoter of student interest in political process as well as public and governmental affairs and service. In the Milton spirit of developing students’ confidence and competence to live by our motto, “Dare to be true,” Seminar Day brings to campus people who have made compelling choices. They are leaders making a difference in the world. Luminaries in the fields of science, public policy, technology, media, and beyond spent the 2024 Keyes Seminar Day sharing insights and ideas from their lives and careers.

Biotech pioneer, entrepreneur, and educator Robert Langer gave the Sarah Bowles ’56 Speaker Fund opening keynote address, detailing the path that led him from undergraduate training as a chemical engineer to becoming one of the world’s most respected medical researchers and a prolific inventor. Dr. Langer’s advancements in drug delivery systems and tissue engineering have had a profound effect on patient care. 

Dr. Langer, one of the nine Institute Professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—MIT’s highest title—described his “inauspicious start” at MIT, but plugged away at his goal: to find a mechanism that would stop blood vessels from growing and prevent the development of tumors. It would be 28 years before the Food and Drug Administration would approve the first drug that functioned with this technology. Dr. Langer struggled to get funding and patent approvals for drug delivery systems, but ultimately developed technologies that have proven to effectively treat cancer, macular degeneration, and viral illnesses. He encouraged students to persist in their dreams.

“To me, science and engineering are wonderful,” he told students. “You can make discoveries and do things that really change human health, which have never been done before. I hope what I’ve tried to show you is that I have these dreams I wanted to see come true, that they didn’t come easily, and they certainly came with a lot of criticism. Whatever dreams you have, whether in art or writing, science or politics, make them big dreams—dreams that can change the world.” 

Breakout sessions included talks from Trustee and Milton parent Rana el Kaliouby P’21’27 about the need for ethical and human-centric artificial intelligence; Boston Housing Authority administrator Kenzie Bok ’07 about the importance of public housing; public-radio reporter Bob Seay on local journalism; activist Kathy Raiz about environmental advocacy; and Board of Trustees President Claire Hughes Johnson ’90 about scaling businesses for growth. Other topics included adolescent mental health, legal careers in the finance industry, string theory, and careers in foreign service. The day is coordinated by the student Public Issues Board, who chose the theme (AI and Activism) and invited speakers.

Ben Mezrich

Bestselling author Ben Mezrich closed the day with the stories behind some of his most successful books, including The Accidental Billionaires—a chronicle of the founding of Facebook—and The Antisocial Network, about the amateur stock traders who initiated the GameStop short squeeze in 2021, causing chaos on Wall Street. Several of Mezrich’s books have been made into critically acclaimed films, including the Oscar-winning movie The Social Network. In spite of his success, Mezrich said his early career was marked by rejections and doubt; he also urged students to stay focused and persistent even in the face of failure.

“Everyone around you, when you go into writing, tells you it’s not possible. You’re not going to make a living at it—there isn’t a living in writing anymore,” Mezrich said. “It’s very hard, and the same goes for acting, music, and sports. There are going to be massive walls you’re going to have to climb over. And you have to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that this is what you were meant to do.”