On May 29, 2019, MSK’s 40th annual academic convocation and eighth commencement was held at the Zuckerman Research Center Auditorium. The ceremony recognized the 14 students from the Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSK) who received their PhD degrees in cancer science this year. It was the school’s largest class of graduates ever, bringing the total number of GSK alumni to 67. Awards were also given to notable scientists and doctors from both inside and outside MSK.
After introducing the speakers and welcoming the attendees, MSK President and CEO Craig B. Thompson kicked off the ceremony by talking about some of the advances in cancer research over the past year. Among the highlights he mentioned were the discovery of a new organelle, called TIGER, which plays a role in protein translation; a collaborative study that identified the gene expression patterns of more than 45,000 individual immune cells in breast tumors; and the latest advances in chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy. He also congratulated MSK developmental biologist Maria Jasin, who will receive the Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine later this year.
In addition to the GSK graduates, Dr. Thompson congratulated the 44 PhD recipients from the 2019 class of the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences who conducted their research in MSK labs.
Honoring an Innovative Educator and Mentor
This year’s address to the graduates was given by Kenneth Marians, who also received an honorary degree from GSK. The recognition was fitting, since Dr. Marians was founding dean of GSK and a driving force in the school’s creation. He served as dean from the school’s launch in 2006 until stepping down at the start of 2019.
Dr. Marians is also a renowned molecular biologist and expert in DNA replication. He was Chair of the Sloan Kettering Institute’s Molecular Biology Program from 1991 until 2016.
He began his talk by recounting the origins of GSK. In 2003, then SKI Director Thomas Kelly asked Dr. Marians to prepare a white paper on how MSK might go about creating its own graduate school. “We realized we had a unique opportunity to put a curriculum together that would take advantage of the collaboration of the clinical and basic science faculty at MSK and create something new and timely,” he said.
“One of the things that we recognized when we started thinking about the GSK curriculum was that the way that a lot of science was going to get done was changing,” he added. Dr. Marians ensured that GSK’s program was poised to always respond to those changes and build upon them.
Dr. Marians acknowledged the mentors he’s had in his career over the years, including SKI molecular biologist Jerard Hurwitz, who died earlier this year. He also spoke about his own role as a mentor to the 141 students who have enrolled in GSK so far. ”Watching them mature and learn and helping them to do so is the enduring feature of my tenure as dean that I will always take with me,” he said.
After Dr. Marians’ talk, Dr. Thompson and SKI Director Joan Massagué presented him with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Biomedical Science.
“An Amazing Time to Be Part of Science”
In his remarks, GSK Dean Michael Overholtzer also offered his appreciation for Dr. Marians, noting the vital contributions that Dr. Marians has made to GSK’s mission of confronting cancer through research across a range of scientific disciplines. “You never know where the next discovery will be made that changes the landscape of research and brings new therapeutic opportunities to the clinic,” Dr. Overholtzer said.
Another speaker at the ceremony was newly minted GSK graduate Scott Callahan. Dr. Callahan, who was chosen by his fellow graduates to act as student speaker, carried out his doctoral research in the labs of developmental biologist Lorenz Studer and cancer biologist Richard White. He conducted studies on the origins of melanoma using both zebrafish and human embryonic stem cells.
“This is truly an amazing time to be part of science,” Dr. Callahan said, echoing the remarks from Dr. Marians about the rapid progress taking place in genomics and other areas of scientific research.
Dr. Callahan told his fellow graduates that he felt privileged to call them his peers. He also thanked GSK’s faculty members, who he described as “truly the greatest minds in medicine,” adding that the work done at GSK has directly contributed to the health and livelihood of people around the globe.
Celebrating Excellence in Biomedical Research
The ceremony also recognized individuals within the MSK community for their research successes:
- Yujie Fan, a graduate student in Dr. Studer’s lab, received the Frank Lappin Horsfall, Jr. Fellowship.
- Cassandra Burdziak, a graduate student in Dana Pe’er’s lab, received the Dorris J. Hutchison Fellowship.
- Postdoctoral fellows Devanshi Jain of Scott Keeney’s lab, Stanley Lee of Omar Abdel-Wahab’s lab, and Weirui Ma of Christine Mayr’s lab received Postdoctoral Research Awards.
- Postdoctoral researcher Elham Azizi, also from Dr. Pe’er’s lab, received a Tri-Institutional Breakout Award for Junior Investigators.
- Dr. Mayr, who is in the Cancer Biology and Genetics Program at SKI, received the Louise and Allston Boyer Young Investigator Award for Basic Research.
- Eli Diamond, a neuro-oncologist and neurologist who specializes in treating Erdheim-Chester disease and other histiocytic neoplasms, received the Louise and Allston Boyer Young Investigator Award for Clinical Research.
- Monika Shah, an infectious disease specialist and Chair of MSK’s Graduate Medical Education Committee, received the Willet F. Whitmore Award for Clinical Excellence.
Honorees from beyond MSK were:
- Charles Scherr, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and chair of the tumor cell biology department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, who received the C. Chester Stock Award
- Huda Zoghbi, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, and director of the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital, who received the Katharine Berkan Judd Award
- Kevin Shannon, a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, San Francisco, who received The Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering Prize