In a landmark ceremony, the 33rd annual Memorial Sloan Kettering Academic Convocation included commencement exercises for the first four students to receive their doctoral degrees from the Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. In addition, the school presented honorary doctor of science degrees to Mr. Gerstner and to National Cancer Institute Director Harold Varmus, the Commencement’s keynote speaker.
Academic Convocation honors students whose doctoral dissertation work was conducted in Memorial Sloan Kettering laboratories through an academic partnership between Weill Cornell Medical College and the Sloan Kettering Institute. In addition, younger Memorial Sloan Kettering physicians, scientists, and postdoctoral research fellows, and established clinicians and investigators from Memorial Sloan Kettering and beyond, are recognized. But in a departure from the previous 32 years, the May 11 ceremony in the Rockefeller Research Laboratories Auditorium took on added significance as the first graduating class of the Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences received their PhD degrees.
“This is a very special moment,” said Memorial Sloan Kettering President Craig B. Thompson, addressing all the graduates. “We anticipate that you will continue to pursue the highest levels of excellence as you carry your ideas and ideals into the next chapter of your journey.”
The awards presented at Convocation to those within the Memorial Sloan Kettering community include those that recognize outstanding research publications by graduate students, others that honor Memorial Sloan Kettering physicians and scientists under the age of 40 who have demonstrated great accomplishment in clinical and laboratory investigations, and still others that acknowledge the work of Sloan Kettering Institute postdoctoral fellows.
The Willet F. Whitmore Award for Clinical Excellence is presented each year to a clinician whose talent and dedication reflect the standards set by Dr. Whitmore during his more than 46 years at the Center. This year, the award went to orthopaedic surgeon Patrick J. Boland. Memorial Hospital Physician-in-Chief Robert E. Wittes said Dr. Boland has “committed his life to relieving pain and improving the function of cancer patients… . He personifies the orthopaedic oncology maxim of curing some, helping most, and comforting all.”
Honorary Degrees Conferred
An honorary doctor of science degree was bestowed on Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., Chair of the Board of the Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Vice Chair of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Boards of Overseers and Managers, by the school that bears his name. In his presentation, Dr. Thompson said Mr. Gerstner had been “a passionate and creative partner” in the establishment of the school and characterized him as “a corporate pioneer, a tireless advocate of quality education, a visionary philanthropist, and one of this institution’s preeminent benefactors.”
In conferring an honorary doctor of science degree to Harold Varmus, who served as Memorial Sloan Kettering’s president from 2000 to 2010, Dr. Thompson said it was presented “in recognition of the contributions of time, energy, support, and wise counsel” Dr. Varmus gave to the establishment of the school, “and for [his] dedication to fostering the careers of young scientists.”
Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences Commencement
Before the first four graduates of the Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences received their diplomas, the school’s Dean, Kenneth J. Marians, acknowledged the central contributions of Harold Varmus, Thomas Kelly, and Louis Gerstner in the school’s establishment “and for entrusting me with realizing their vision.
For me,” Dr. Marians continued, “today is a deeply personal event. Over the past nine years, with the help of many, we’ve created a new graduate school that has risen rapidly to become one of the premier training grounds for cancer biology and a model for training biomedical scientists in the new millennium… . Students are our lifeblood [and] the scientific lifetime of our graduates will be full of astounding discoveries and insights… . I envy your path of discovery,” he concluded.
Eric Alonzo, who matriculated in 2006 as a member of the school’s founding class, spoke on behalf of his fellow graduates. “I strongly believe that an integrative approach to science is fundamental to the future of basic and clinical research,” Dr. Alonzo observed. “The emphasis on translational research at the Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences was truly exciting because it meant that as a bench scientist I had an extraordinary opportunity to apply my work to projects that might be useful some day in the clinic… . This model of training will give future scientists a greater ability to work across disciplines to solve challenging problems in biomedical research.”
Harold Varmus Speaks to the Graduates
“I want to address an often-forgotten aspect of your transition from science students to science professionals — your new power to influence your discipline … by bringing others into it,” Dr. Varmus said as he began his Commencement address. “Today we celebrate your passage through a gate that denotes your new expertise — a passage that will expand your scientific independence and your career opportunities. But you are also becoming a keeper of those gates. And as gatekeepers, you will now, or will soon be, in a position to entice others into the world of science, to select those worthy of attention by mentors such as yourselves, and to provide them with direction and inspiration — an influence that will extend over many decades.
Dr. Varmus illustrated his message by talking about his own education and the role that serendipity played in his journey to a life in science — from graduate work in English literature, to medical school and an early “fascination with Freudian psychiatry, to a fortuitous interview with a National Institutes of Health scientist “who opened the gate for me.”
That scientist, molecular biologist Ira Pastan, accepted a 28-year-old Harold Varmus, a self-described “clueless experimentalist,” into his laboratory “and turned me into a productive and enthusiastic lab rat.” The experience, said Dr. Varmus, taught him “to take a chance on unconventional people and follow my instincts when considering whether to open a gate for a new trainee… . Much of the pleasure in science has come from their accomplishments later in life.
In conclusion, Dr. Varmus counseled the graduates that they, too, “can open gateways to science by your example — using your knowledge, your enthusiasm, and your judgment to inspire and instruct. It is a precious and gratifying power and I trust you will use it wisely.”
After delivering the address, Dr. Varmus received the Memorial Sloan Kettering Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Biomedical Research.
Katharine Berkan Judd Award Lectureship
Don W. Cleveland, PhD
Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research
University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine
Willet F. Whitmore Award for Clinical Excellence
Patrick J. Boland, MD, FRCS
Degree of Doctor of Science, Honoris Causa
Louis V. Gerstner, Jr.
Harold Varmus, MD
The Memorial Sloan Kettering Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Biomedical Research
Harold Varmus, MD
Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences
Eric S. Alonzo
James A. Dowdle
Dimiter V. Tassev
Sloan Kettering Division/Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences