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MIT Better World

By Kris Willcox

Decades later, he considers his MIT years a pivotal time in his life. “The rigor and academic demands made MIT exceptional,” he says, but the personal dimension was also important. “Forty years later, my MIT classmates are still some of my best friends.”

After completing MIT degrees in biology, and nutritional biochemistry and metabolism, Daniels followed his growing interests in biology and medicine to Genentech, then to medical school at Washington University, St. Louis. After training as a rheumatologist/immunologist, he had a 20-year career in biotechnology. He helped develop innovative treatments for cancer, HIV, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and other serious conditions. In 2014, he retired as a senior vice president at Bristol-Myers Squibb. “I’ve traveled a lot in my professional life,” Daniels observes, “and I’ve seen that MIT is recognized all over the world for excellence.”

When asked about the connections between MIT and the biotech industry, Daniels describes the path of powerful ideas, from inspiration to the patient’s bedside. “We often focus on final outputs, like new drugs or better medical devices, but before each output there’s a long journey.” That journey, he notes, requires investment. “It all ties back to basic scientific research and technology advancement,” Daniels says, and MIT is making two invaluable contributions: powerful ideas, and individuals trained to develop those ideas to their full potential. “What you learn at MIT is that discoveries are fundamental, but they’re not enough. You need both ‘mind and hand.’ People at MIT have a desire to move things out of the labs and technology suites and make them applicable.”

Daniels has found two meaningful ways to remain engaged in MIT education: as a mentor in the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP), and as a donor. Many of the gifts that he and his wife Paula have made to MIT are unrestricted, a decision based in trust—and experience. “I’ve managed large organizations,” he explains, “and I know budgets are complex. An unrestricted gift provides flexibility to address the greatest need at that point in time. I have full faith in MIT to decide how best to use our gifts.”

As a UPOP mentor, Daniels has helped students examine “what good looks like” after graduation. “If you made it to MIT, you’ve been successful academically. But success after MIT is different. You’re working in teams with greater diversity of thought and capabilities, and projects are open ended. It’s not simply, ‘Here’s a problem set and it’s due in three days.’ You also need skills like management, collaboration, and decision making.” Daniels says he has greatly enjoyed working with undergraduates to cultivate those skills.

Today, Brian and Paula Daniels are enjoying semi-retirement in Sonoma, California, which he calls “a great place to live.” In 2014, he joined 5AM Ventures as a venture partner, identifying promising new biotech enterprises. “Every day I’m exposed to new science and technologies,” he says with satisfaction. “To me, that’s lifelong learning.”