Keynote Address

Pictured: Harold Varmus

Harold Varmus

Inaugural Commencement
The Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences
May 11, 2012
Keynote Address
Harold Varmus
Director of the National Cancer Institute

Let me begin with some greetings: first, to my former colleagues, many of whose smiling faces I see in the audience: to new staff, including the not-so-new President; and most especially to today’s honorees and graduates and the graduates’ families.

Convocation at this institution celebrates many things and many people. But the centerpiece for me has always been the recognition of graduate students— students who have completed a difficult program that culminates in the award of a PhD.

This year, the significance of the moment is greater than usual because the list of graduates include some who will receive the first PhDs awarded by the Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School, the Center’s first degree-granting program, a milestone in the history of this remarkable institution.   To highlight the event, the usual informal attire that I always promoted, has been replaced – or should I say covered? – by ceremonial, medieval, rabbinical gowns. The word “Commencement” also appears on today’s Convocation program, and the musicians have played not just Mozart but also Pomp and Circumstance.

The extent and diversity of graduate training on this campus may be a surprise to many – not to those in this audience – but to many around the city and the world, who think this institution is simply a great cancer hospital or a great hospital that also does cancer research. But Memorial Sloan Kettering has many PhD programs, several of which have been mentioned already: the long-standing joint programs in several traditional disciplines with the Weill-Cornell Medical School; a tri-institutional MD/PhD that also includes Rockefeller University; two non-traditional, inter-disciplinary programs in chemical biology and in computational biology,  started about 10 years ago; and of course, most recently, the novel cancer biology program at Gerstner Sloan Kettering – designed enthusiastically by our own faculty, overseen rigorously by Dean Ken Marians, and supported generously by Lou Gerstner.  During my decade here as President, many of my satisfactions were connected with these graduate programs – as a classroom teacher in several; as a co-developer of new programs; and as the person who shakes the hands of, and gets photographed with, happy graduates and their mentors.

Because the Convocation honors many things about this institution, speakers who have usually been invited to this podium talk about many different topics. At the 11 Convocations over which I presided, we learned about healthcare from a former Secretary of Health and Human Services; about medical research on many topics from several university leaders and directors of both the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health; about creationism, believe it or not, from the President of Princeton; and even about the management of dual careers from a scientifically successful couple.

But this inaugural moment for Gerstner Sloan Kettering is an inspiration to talk directly to the graduates – to all of the graduates, not just the GSK graduates – about the meaning of this transitional moment. In other words, I am actually giving a Commencement talk rather than a Convocation talk.

It is customary to say to people receiving degrees in any field – in literature, history, or science — that you’ve been taught the subject, now go and make good use of it. For today’s graduates, trained to do research related to cancer, it is a particularly auspicious moment to deliver that message. There are many reasons for this. But prime among them is the fact that a fundamental understanding of cancer biology is rapidly changing the way cancers are controlled, the grand objective of doing research on cancer. Science and medicine, experiments and patient care, have never been more closely connected; this is a source of great excitement and optimism.

Still, this is not what I plan to discuss. Instead I’d like to address an often-forgotten aspect of your transition from science students to science professionals — that is, your new power to influence your discipline, and to influence it for many years, by bringing others into it.

Let me explain in a little more detail. Today we’re celebrating your passage through a gate, a gate that denotes your new expertise, and that’s a passage that is going to expand your scientific independence and your career opportunities.   But you are also becoming a keeper of those gates. As gatekeepers, you will now, or will soon be, in a position to entice others into the world of science, to select those that are worthy of attention by mentors such as yourselves, and to provide them with direction and inspiration — an influence that will extend over many decades.

I am personally one of those who have enjoyed, and am still enjoying, a gratifying life in science. But I could easily have missed out on the whole thing if I had not had an unanticipated, fortuitous passage through an entry gate — a passage that was made possible and productive by a sympathetic gatekeeper.      

Today I want to tell you a story about how this happened, about the gatekeeper, and about why this aspect of your future can be important and rewarding.   To do this, I have to begin with some simple facts about my childhood and my education.

I grew up on the South Shore of Long Island, a child of healthcare professionals who were dedicated to public service but who were not especially familiar with science. I attended public schools that made science seem uninteresting and sometimes downright unattractive. Our biology teacher at Freeport High was a football coach who also taught driver’s ed. Our chemistry teacher was known mainly for his caustic remarks. There were no science fairs and no Westinghouse competitions.

I now know that most scientists first got drawn to their subject in high school by teachers or by activities that excited and inspired them. Today I frequently get e-mails from high school students — it used to be from places like Stuyvesant or Bronx Science in New York, now it’s from Jefferson High in Virginia and schools in the District of Columbia — who want to study cancer genes and win Intel prizes.   Some of these students have then spent summers in my lab or other labs at MSK or NIH. My only high school summer experience that conveyed cultural enrichment occurred at a work camp in Putney, Vermont, where I learned about literature, trail-making, and backpacking, but not science.

At Amherst College I took just enough science courses to fulfill my pre-medical requirements as well as home town expectations that the son of a doctor would follow in his father’s footsteps. But my mind was on English poets and English novelists, and I spent my after-class hours in the college newspaper office, not in laboratories.  I didn’t seem headed for the sciences or even for medical school, and my organic chemistry teacher made that explicit with a generous “Gentleman’s C.”

So I headed off to do graduate work in English literature. But a year later I decided to enter medical school at Columbia University to pursue a new fascination with Freudian psychiatry. That passion faded quickly.  I then thought I was headed toward academic life in internal medicine until fate and science intervened.

I need to explain some history to those of you who are a lot younger than I am.  During the Vietnam War, the era in which this story took place, physicians were required to perform some form of government service. For those of us who opposed the war, the options – other than exile to places like Canada – were mainly in the U.S. Public Health Service: treating patients on Indian reservations, tracing disease outbreaks for the Centers for Disease Control, or performing medical research at the National Institutes of Health.   For someone like me, who was considering a career in academic medicine, NIH was by far the most attractive option.   But the competition was stiff, and my research credentials were nil.

At this point, a young NIH scientist stepped in and opened a gate for me. When I met him during Interview Day in 1966, Ira Pastan was in his mid-30s, a trained physician who had become a biochemist while doing his national service at the NIH some years earlier, and he was trying to understand how hormones, specifically thyroid-stimulating hormone, worked biochemically.

He cannot have been interested in my scientific background, since I had none. But he was intrigued by my experience in literature. Why? Because he himself was an enthusiastic reader; but much more importantly, his wife, Linda Pastan, was an accomplished (and now very well-known) poet who often complained to Ira that she had no one to talk to about books at lab parties. Of course I’d like to think that he responded to more than just this – perhaps to a personal resonance, to some like-mindedness, or to some still latent potential to become a scientist – qualities that I now seek when I talk to applicants for training in my own lab.

Still, Ira and I had a rocky beginning, and I tested his faith. I ruined an early experiment by dropping radioactive filters in the sink. I couldn’t always follow instructions because I didn’t know simple things about lab procedures, like how to use buffers. I still recall Ira looking at me with a combination of irritation and amusement on his face saying, “Now why did I take you into my lab? Oh, yes! You were going to talk to Linda about poetry.”

With time, we worked it out, and I learned a lot from him. At a modest length of just two years, my time at NIH was not as long as the full-fledged PhD programs that today’s graduates have just finished. Still, senior NIH scientists provided superb evening courses for many medical school graduates like me, who needed a broad grounding in science in addition to some practical skills in the lab — like how to use buffers – if we were going to become serious scientists.

From those courses I learned about important and thrilling intellectual frontiers. So I soon set aside my earlier clinical ambitions in favor of a post-NIH future in which I was going to pursue viruses that cause cancers in animals.

But from Ira, I learned how good science is actually done.   Let me review a few of the messages that I learned from working with him.

First, we used bacteria to try to understand how all cells, including mammalian cells, respond to hormones and other chemical signals. I learned from this that simple model systems can be critical for addressing difficult medical problems.

Second, Ira and I worked together to master new techniques, like a then-novel technique called molecular hybridization as a method to measure RNA and DNA. That proved to be a way to answer previously unanswerable questions by showing directly how genes are regulated. So I learned to respect the power of new methods for answering old questions.

Third, to learn these methods, Ira and I boldly asked revered experts how to do things. So I learned that science is a communal activity, and that I could pick up the phone – or, now, use email – to ask anyone for help when embracing new techniques.

Fourth, Ira and I spent many hours together at talks and meetings. Not all of them were good or exciting, but he taught me how to find useful information in every experience, even a bad talk or a boring meeting.

Most importantly, he took me in, as a clueless experimentalist at age 28, and turned me into a productive and enthusiastic “lab rat.” So I learned to take a chance on unconventional people and to follow my own instincts when considering whether to open a gate for a new trainee. I have done that on numerous occasions, and much of my pleasure in science has come from their accomplishments later in life.

Successful partnerships between gatekeepers and gate-entrants are often long lasting, and Ira and I – and yes, Linda too, and Connie, my own literary spouse – have been good friends ever since. But now there’s a new twist to the story.  Recently, more than 40 years after I left his lab for California and cancer viruses, Ira’s relationship with me has taken on new, unusual, and highly instructive features. Against all odds, especially at our ages, we are colleagues again on the NIH campus.  He is still a very active investigator at the NCI, where I became the director after leaving MSK about two years ago. So the formal features of our relationship have changed. On paper at least, I am his boss.

But I am still learning from him. He’s moved the focus of his research to pursue a new goal: the construction of killer antibodies directed against proteins in cancer cells. This hasn’t been easy, requiring difficult methods, like structural biology; new collaborators; and regulatory approvals.

Still, when I climbed into his car recently for a lunch date, he immediately pulled out radiographic images of a patient with mesothelioma whose chest, once full of tumor, had been cleared entirely by Ira’s synthetic antibodies. So there’s another lesson here: Age need not limit potential. Just as good ideas can come from high school students, investigators now over 80 can push the frontiers and set a high standard for all of us in cancer research.

So what is my message for today’s graduates? There are many ways to use what you have learned at this institution; as fulltime scientists in academia, government or industry; as science teachers, journalists, administrators, or physicians. In these roles, or others, you 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.

Congratulations to all of you. Go forth and flourish.