George Scangos, the Boy From Working Class Boston, on His Road Back to Lead Biogen Idec

8/31/11Follow @xconomy

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him to take another class in genetics, which he found similarly fascinating. So that was the end of French—Scangos was hooked on biology, specializing in courses that concentrated on the neurological basis of behavior: things like fight vs. flight response.

To be at Cornell in the mid-60s meant that Scangos was exposed to some serious, and occasionally violent, Vietnam War protests. He was sympathetic with the anti-war protests, civil rights movement, and other challenges to the Establishment. Scangos says he didn’t have much direction then, and just tried to have a good time, but he also says he became a lot more socially aware.

“A lot has been written about the boomers, about their unwillingness to accept the status quo. The status quo was not good. It was not a country where it was equal for everybody, and not everybody had a voice,” Scangos says. “To some extent, it’s still not, although it’s way better than it was. I fit in well with a sense of iconoclasm, and wanting to do things a bit differently.”

Around the time when he was due to graduate in 1970, his student deferment from the draft was about to expire. He and a couple dozen friends huddled around a radio and listening in suspense as draft cards were drawn based on birthdays.

He drew a favorable number, which meant he had gotten lucky, and wasn’t going to be shipped off to Southeast Asia.

“That was a big night. Everybody went out and got drunk,” Scangos says. “You either were happy you weren’t going, or you were drinking because you were. That was a dramatic time.”

After graduating from Cornell, Scangos didn’t know what to do next. He took an entry-level job as a lab technician at MIT, stayed about a year, and got bored. The next challenge was as a sales rep for a lab supply company, which gave him access to some of the top labs at Harvard and MIT, and plenty of other labs in New England. The science at those top institutions fascinated him, even it was over his head at the time.

And he soon realized sales wasn’t for him. “After about a year, I really came to the conclusion that I didn’t care whose product these people bought. Our products worked, a competitor’s product worked. My life, I thought, was being wasted on spending all my time working on things that didn’t matter,” Scangos says.

So he got serious about learning biology, and that meant graduate school. He had good grades from Cornell, but the epiphany hit him in August 1972, long after most fall classes were fully enrolled. Still, he felt so strongly about this new direction that he got in his car with a copy of his undergraduate transcript and drove to UMass Amherst. It was a school he thought he could afford, and where he thought he could get started in microbiology. He figured he’d probably transfer somewhere else after a year.

That all seemed reasonable until Scangos ran into secretary who told him he was basically nuts trying to get in that late. Like when he was able to miss the draft, Scangos got another good break. This time, Scangos says, the department chair overhead the conversation and called him into his office. Scangos says he pleaded his case, telling the professor he had good grades and strong recommendations and would be a terrific student. The department chair listened, then told him that a student had just dropped out, creating a vacancy. If Scangos follow up with proof of recommendations, and an official transcript, he could be admitted as a provisional student for one semester, with a chance for permanent enrollment if he did well.

That was all it took. Scangos had never taken a microbiology course at that point, but he threw himself into the subject and did “incredibly well” that first semester. When Scangos found some of the lab work mundane, he asked for more challenging assignments from his thesis advisor, Albey Reiner, a Harvard-trained biologist. The work he was given was challenging enough that Scangos never felt the need to transfer. He got his doctorate in 1977, as genetic engineering was picking up.

After getting his Ph.D., Scangos set off for postdoctoral work in the lab of renowned geneticist Frank Ruddle at Yale University. Scangos’ claim to fame as a young postdoc was when he and another of Ruddle’s charges, Jon Gordon, created the first mouse with foreign DNA that could be passed on to offspring—a transgenic mouse. This was an historic advance, which made the front page … Next Page »

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  • http://www.xconomy.com Bill Ghormley

    George Scangos’ story is a powerful life story that tells so much about technology, business and the culture that surrounds life science endeavors in our time — well-written, and, it seems still being written.
    Thank you, Luke, and George.

  • jOHN rOZAKLIS

    i Hold a sales & Marketing position with Arista power corp.
    I Was born in Greece. Every time i read a story like mr Scangos, i
    am very proud & happy to be greek.

    Thank you Mr Scangos, for the enxample ,that a good education & vision , works.
    I , father of 3 , two of them with Phds, i am very proud.

    My best regards. John Rozaklis

  • Tom

    We the Greeks of diaspora are all proud of the achievements of fellow Greeks such as Mr. Scangos. His story is a lesson to all young people…they should never hesitate to learn different things at a young age because they never know what will turn on their “lightbulb”. And if something was taught by a lousy teacher, take it one more time with a more passionate one.

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  • ayasha

    may you tell me more