On May 30, 2018, Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Zuckerman Research Center Auditorium played host to MSK’s 39th annual Academic Convocation and Commencement. The ceremony honored the nine students from the Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSK) who received their PhD degrees in cancer science this year. Awards were also presented to distinguished scientists and clinicians from both MSK and other institutions.
MSK President and CEO Craig B. Thompson began the festivities by introducing the day’s other speakers and welcoming all the attendees, including the GSK graduates and their families, the award winners, and other members of the MSK community.
Dr. Thompson highlighted many advances in cancer science since the last convocation and commencement gathering. These included the US Food and Drug Administration’s approval of two drugs that originated in MSK labs, the success of immunotherapy for tumors that have a high mutational burden, important advances in structural biology, and discoveries that made surprising links between cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. He also highlighted the FDA authorization of MSK-IMPACTTM, MSK’s test that looks for hundreds of cancer-related mutations in tumors.
“We are extremely proud of all of our doctoral students,” he said. “In all, it’s been an incredible year at MSK. And today we celebrate the achievements of our talented trainees and their mentors.”
In addition to the nine new PhD scientists graduated from GSK — which brings the total number of alumni to 53 since the school admitted its first class in 2006 — Dr. Thompson also congratulated 32 graduates from Weill-Cornell Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences’ class of 2018 who undertook their thesis work in MSK laboratories.
Recognizing Extraordinary Achievements
One of the highlights of the ceremony was a talk from neuroscientist Cori Bargmann, who leads the Lulu and Anthony Wang Laboratory of Neural Circuits and Behavior at The Rockefeller University and is also head of science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
In Dr. Bargmann’s commencement address, she congratulated the students for their work and the progress they have made, telling them, “There’s never been a time to be more inspired by what science and medicine can accomplish.”
She stressed the importance of humility in science by describing the development of the breast cancer drug trastuzumab (Herceptin®), to which her own research made key contributions. “And yet when I look at that, I know with absolute certainty that I am one of a thousand — or one of ten thousand — people who made that possible,” she said. “In science, too often we emphasize one person’s contribution, one great thing, when in fact our greatest work as human beings is the work that we do together.”
Dr. Bargmann also discussed the importance of using technology, including computation and machine learning, to address problems central to human biology. “The captivating tools of Silicon Valley have a great deal of potential when we are able to deploy them based on what we know from our deep knowledge of science and medicine,” she said. She concluded her talk by calling for more openness and sharing in biomedical research, and for making patients’ experience and knowledge more central to science.
After Dr. Bargmann’s talk, Douglas A. Warner III presented her with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Biomedical Science. Mr. Warner, who is Chairman of MSK’s Boards of Overseers and Managers, also congratulated the graduates and award winners, telling them, “The work you’ve chosen to do is noble indeed, and will undoubtedly shape our future.”
Never Ready to Stop Learning
Another speaker at the ceremony was GSK student speaker Catherine (Kasia) Konopacki, who completed her doctoral research this year in the lab of immunologist Alexander Rudensky. Her thesis focused on a type of immune cells called regulatory T cells, and the importance of these cells in breast cancer.
Dr. Konopacki talked about the role of curiosity and the hunger for knowledge, and how it has driven her and her fellow graduates forward through all the challenges they have faced in the lab. But she praised the experiences and training that they all received, noting, “We were given the freedom to become successful and independent researchers.”
Recognizing Important Accomplishments
In addition to the GSK and Weill Cornell graduates, the ceremony also recognized individuals within the MSK community for their research successes:
- Gary Dixon, a graduate student in Danwei Huangfu’s lab, received the Frank Lappin Horsfall, Jr. Fellowship.
- Nicole Weiss, a graduate student in Minkui Luo’s lab, received the Dorris J. Hutchison Fellowship.
- Stanislav Dikiy, a graduate student in Dr. Rudensky’s lab, received the new General Atlantic Graduate Research Fellowship.
- Postdoctoral fellows Neta Schlesinger, of Tobias Hohl’s lab, and Ly Vu, who works in the labs of both Michael Kharas and Ross Levine, received Postdoctoral Research Awards.
- Postdoctoral researcher Hui Yang of Dinshaw Patel’s lab received a Tri-Institutional Breakout Prize for Junior Investigators.
- Philipp Niethammer of the Cell Biology Program received the Louise and Allston Boyer Young Investigator Award for Basic Research.
- Michael Berger, a geneticist and Associate Director of the Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis Center for Molecular Oncology, received the Boyer Clinical Research Award.
- Dean Bajorin, a medical oncologist who specializes in treating genitourinary cancers, received the Willet F. Whitmore Award for Clinical Excellence.
In addition to Dr. Bargmann, who also was presented with an honorary degree from GSK, honorees from beyond MSK were:
- Bert Vogelstein, director of the Ludwig Center, Clayton Professor of Oncology and Pathology, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the Johns Hopkins Medical School, who received the C. Chester Stock Award;
- Peter Walter, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, who received the Katharine Berkan Judd Award; and
- Melvyn Greaves, a professor at the Institute of Cancer Research in the United Kingdom, who received the Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering Prize.