Meet Leonard Freedman, Frederick National Laboratory’s New Chief Science Officer

By Samuel Lopez, staff writer; photo by Richard Frederickson, staff photographer
Photo of Leonard Freedman

For Leonard Freedman, Ph.D., a lifetime in the sciences began serendipitously at Kalamazoo College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan.

Freedman, who is Frederick National Laboratory’s new chief science officer, was drawn to the college’s strong science and premedical programs. However, he says many other subjects were equally attractive during his studies.

“At one time, I seriously considered being a philosophy major, and I was actually also very interested in and really enjoyed psychology,” he said.

Freedman discovered his passion for science, especially molecular genetics, after being exposed to genuine laboratory work in his senior year, when he became a student researcher on a professor’s independent, grant-funded research project into bacterial gene regulation.

“I had a textbook understanding of molecular genetics, but when I got into the lab, doing experiments and reading the scientific literature was an eye-opening experience,” Freedman said. “It really connected with me.”

That experience, along with some advice from the professor, encouraged Freedman to pursue advanced studies in molecular biology after graduating from Kalamazoo. It still wasn’t an easy choice, though—Freedman’s parents hoped he would attend medical school, as many young men did in the Detroit suburb where the family lived. Freedman agonized over the decision, and on the night before he was scheduled to take the medical school entrance exam, he told his parents that it wasn’t right for him.

“They had already paid the registration for the exam,” Freedman said. “I hadn’t studied. I said [to them], ‘I don’t want to do this. I really want to do research.’”

Freedman’s parents understood, and he instead attended the University of Rochester and graduated with a Ph.D. He says he never looked back after that.

“I kind of got on this train, and it just kept going,” he said.

His decades-long career has included working as a professor at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; an executive at Merck & Co. and Wyeth Pharmaceuticals; a dean at Jefferson Medical College; and a founder and president of the Global Biological Standards Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates for standardized guidelines in basic scientific research.

Looking Forward to Frederick

Freedman joined the Frederick National Laboratory in November 2018 after being named the chief science officer. Now that he’s nearly three months into his tenure, he’s excited by the possibilities of what the Frederick National Laboratory can achieve in science.

“It’s difficult, it’s complicated, but what an opportunity to do big, big aspirational projects,” he said, citing the national lab’s National Cryo-EM Facility, supercomputing collaborations with NCI and the Department of Energy, and RAS Initiative.

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself. The breadth and depth of the science here is amazing,” he added.

Freedman plans to continue acclimating and learning more about the Frederick National Laboratory’s capabilities before he develops a vision for its scientific efforts. However, he does have a few rough ideas, such as making the institution more visible within the scientific community, developing many more collaborations with external groups, helping the institution grow and flourish as a national lab, and establishing more large-scale initiatives.

“I think we should go national and global in our external outreach, in addition to the current efforts in developing local and regional relationships,” he said.

Outside the Office

Currently, Freedman lives in Philadelphia with his family. He stays and works in Frederick Monday–Thursday, then returns to Pennsylvania to work remotely on Fridays and spend the weekend at home.

While some would cringe at his commute and schedule, Freedman takes it in stride, listening to audiobooks as he travels. He recently finished Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, narrated by Springsteen himself.

“I was not a big Springsteen [fan]. I appreciate Springsteen,” Freedman said. “I never owned a Springsteen album because I’m a prog-rock guy. [But the book] was so good!”

Freedman also listens to albums by his favorite progressive-rock bands, Yes and Genesis, while traveling. Jethro Tull occasionally shows up on the playlist, as well.

Outside of work, Freedman enjoys spending time with his wife and four children. He also likes road cycling, and although he isn’t a competitive cyclist, he has previously gone on organized rides. On several occasions, he has participated in an annual five-day ride across Israel to raise funds for an Israeli children’s rehabilitation hospital. Each year, he and his fellow cyclists concluded their route at the hospital, where they had a chance to meet the children, many of whom were physically disabled or recovering from injuries.

“It’s amazing,” Freedman said. “That’s been a real thrill.”