Center News Magazine: 31st Annual Memorial Sloan Kettering Convocation

Thursday, July 1, 2010
Convocation keynote speakers and Memorial Sloan Kettering medal recipients Elizabeth Nabel and Gary Nabel with Memorial Sloan Kettering President Harold Varmus (center). Convocation keynote speakers and Memorial Sloan Kettering medal recipients Elizabeth Nabel and Gary Nabel with Memorial Sloan Kettering President Harold Varmus (center).

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Academic Convocation honors research as it is embodied in many individuals, including students who have earned their PhD degrees for work carried out in Memorial Sloan-Ketter’s laboratories, younger Memorial Sloan Kettering physicians and scientists, and postdoctoral research fellows, as well as established clinicians and investigators from the Center and beyond. This year, 21 students received their PhD degrees from Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, an academic partnership between the Weill Cornell Medical College and the Sloan Kettering Institute. The winners of the Samuel and May Rudin Awards for Excellence in Nursing were also recognized. (Read more about the nurses recognized.)

Although this event is not about me — it’s about the graduates of our PhD programs, the award recipients, and the Convocation speakers — this year I’m going to take a couple of liberties since I, too, feel like I’m about to graduate,” Memorial Sloan Kettering President Harold Varmus told the audience gathered in the Rockefeller Research Laboratories Auditorium on May 13. The Memorial Sloan Kettering 31st annual Convocation was the last he would lead as President of the Center. After a decade of service, Dr. Varmus stepped down from that position on July 1. (Read more about his leadership of Memorial Sloan Kettering.)

The graduates we honor today have learned a lot about medical science and about how to perform research,” Dr. Varmus continued, “but I’ve also learned a lot in the past decade. For example, I’ve learned what it takes to run a great clinical enterprise with a wide range of talents and an extraordinary variety of people — whether we’re talking about tending to the immediate needs of patients, or those who are doing many other things in back offices, at front doors, in cafeterias and other places that are needed for hospitals and clinics to do their work effectively.

Thomas Kelly, Nikka Charles, Eric Holland, and Harold Varmus (From left) Thomas Kelly, PhD recipient Nikka Charles, neurosurgeon and neuroscientist Eric Holland, and Harold Varmus. Dr. Charles did her thesis work in Dr. Holland’s laboratory.

I’ve learned how to assemble teams of scientists so that we can harness new knowledge and methods to understand cells more profoundly and to try to combat cancer more vigorously,” he said. “And I’ve learned how an inspired and knowledgeable Board of Overseers and Managers provides the financial and, indeed, the moral support to our efforts in patient care, research, and teaching, the three cardinal principles on which this institution is based.

Entitled “The Tapestry of Professional Life: Weaving Together Career and Family,” the Convocation address was delivered jointly by Elizabeth G. Nabel, President of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and her husband, Gary J. Nabel, Director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health.

Elizabeth Nabel began her remarks by acknowledging that “all of us have benefitted in one way or another from Harold’s extraordinary gifts of scientific acumen, academic leadership, and genuine character as a human being. He is truly a global scientist-statesman who bridges science and society to solve difficult problems.

Dr. Nabel continued by offering three pieces of advice. The first was “to discover and follow your passion … Those passions — for me, my family and medicine — are what have given me to this day the energy to work long hours in the lab or the clinic, and then burn the midnight oil writing papers and grants after the kids were tucked in.” The next piece of advice was “diligence … understood as the great prerequisite of great accomplishment, diligence stands as one of the most difficult challenges facing anyone who takes on tasks of importance and consequence.” She said that her father, a chemist at the 3M Company, “taught me many things, but one of his most important lessons was the need to find and keep the stamina to persist through failure.

Rodrigo Fernandez-Gonzalez , and Thomas Kelly (Below) Rodrigo Fernandez-Gonzalez receives the Postdoctoral Research Award from Sloan Kettering Institute Director Thomas Kelly.

Dr. Nabel’s final counsel was “to have courage and take risks … Every new challenge that Gary and I have encountered over the years — whether in learning, in research, in patient care, in leadership, in raising children — has called upon an ability to take chances on a future that has no guarantees.

In the spirit of the address he and his wife delivered, Gary Nabel first recognized Dr. Varmus’ wife, Constance Casey, saying, “As we acknowledge the importance of balancing family and career here today, I also want to honor your own bright star, the multitalented Connie … She has navigated life’s journey with you and charted her own remarkable professional career while balancing your family needs. Connie, thank you for your many contributions and sharing Harold with the rest of us.

As Betsy and I have journeyed together through the joys and challenges of family life and biomedical research, the balancing act has always involved being attentive to ‘family’ in a broader sense,” Dr. Nabel continued, amplifying his wife’s comments. “We are all part of families — vital communities that nuture and support us, and to whom we give back. Perhaps the three most important are our immediate family, our scientific family, and our global family.

Addressing the graduates, Dr. Nabel observed, “You have also become members of a larger scientific family and have developed a network of mentors, colleagues, and friendships that will last a lifetime. In large measure, your success in life will come from balancing your personal and professional life — in the way you find your place in these communities.

At the conclusion of their remarks, the Nabels both received the Memorial Sloan Kettering Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Biomedical Research. Before reading the medal citations, Memorial Sloan Kettering Boards Chairman Douglas A. Warner III spoke about Dr. Varmus’ time as Memorial Sloan Kettering President. “Looking back at conversations we had with Harold ten, 11 years ago, and talking about his vision, his ambitions, and about what he would like try to make happen over ten years — he’s done it,” Mr. Warner said. “And he’s done it in a way and in a character and in a style of which we can all be very, very proud.