2017 MSK Convocation and Commencement Ceremony Celebrates Distinguished Scientists and Young Scholars


On May 18, staff, graduates, and family members filled Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Zuckerman Research Center Auditorium for the 38th annual Academic Convocation and Commencement ceremony that bestowed degrees upon seven students from the Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSK). Awards were also granted to leaders in cancer research, which included both members of the MSK community and eminent investigators from other institutions.

MSK President and CEO Craig B. Thompson welcomed attendees, recounting the numerous accomplishments and milestones that MSK has achieved over the past year, including spearheading clinical trials for several newly approved cancer therapies and making major advances in precision medicine and immunotherapy.

“These clinical successes have been built on a foundation of science developed at MSK’s laboratories over the last two decades,” Dr. Thompson said. “Therefore it is fitting that today we celebrate the achievements of our talented scientific trainees and their mentors. Together, they are creating the new knowledge on which future medical advances will be based.”

In addition to the seven new PhD scientists graduated from GSK — which brought the total number of alumni to 44 since the school admitted its first class in 2006 — Dr. Thompson also congratulated the 35 graduates of the Weill-Cornell Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences who earned their PhD degrees this year working in MSK laboratories.

Honoring a Groundbreaking Scientist

A highlight of the ceremony was the keynote address from Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

After congratulating the graduates and the award recipients, Dr. Langer told the audience about the path that led him to where he is today, including the challenges he faced as a chemical engineer trying to break into the field of health-related research.

“In speaking this afternoon, I wanted to leave you with a couple of simple messages,” he said. “First, whatever you do in life, do something that you really love, something that you’re passionate about.

“Second,” he added, “try to dream big dreams, dreams that you think can change the world and make it a better place. And third, if things start to go bad — and I can assure you, at different points in your life, they will — don’t give up on those dreams.”

He concluded by expressing his hope that the graduates “choose something that you really love, that you’re passionate about, and that you will … do things to help people and improve the world.”

After Dr. Langer’s talk, Douglas A. Warner III presented him 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, called Dr. Langer a “distinguished scientist, scholar, teacher, and pioneer in the fields of engineering, medicine, and biotechnology.”

“Yours has been a lifelong journey to advance treatment options and quality of life for people everywhere,” he said.

Enjoying the View from the Top

Another memorable moment from the ceremony was the inspiring, impassioned remarks from GSK student speaker Marta Kovatcheva, who finished her doctoral research this year in the lab of molecular biologist Andrew Koff. Dr. Kovatcheva described the journey she and the other newly minted PhDs completed as “a Sisyphean task,” adding, “Today we’ve all managed to push our respective boulders to the top of our hills, so I hope you will take a moment to enjoy the view from the top and celebrate your successes.”

She also talked about how the current political climate poses challenges for the scientific community. “It is a threat to scientific funding, to scientific policy,” she said. “A threat to the very institution that we’ve devoted our lives to.”

She called upon her fellow graduates to “remember this all-important burden of a scientist, and, regardless of where your career path and choices may take you, to remember that it is our responsibility to convince the world around us that good science is not just worthy of pursuit. It is worthy of attention.”

Recognizing Important Accomplishments

In addition to the GSK and Weill Cornell graduates, the ceremony also recognized individuals both within and beyond the MSK community for their research successes:

  • Thomas Vito Galassi, a graduate student in Daniel Heller’s lab, received the Frank Lappin Horsfall, Jr. Fellowship.
  • Mehtap Isik, a graduate student in John Chodera’s lab, received the Dorris J. Hutchison Fellowship.
  • Postdoctoral fellows Charles David of Joan Massagué’s lab, Ping Mu of Charles Sawyers’ lab, and Hatice Ulku Osmanbeyoglu of Christina Leslie’s lab, all received Postdoctoral Research Awards.
  • Postdoctoral researchers Wilhelm Palm of Craig Thompson’s lab and Frederick C. Streich, Jr., of Christopher Lima’s lab, each received a Tri-Institutional Breakout Prize for Junior Investigators.
  • Morgan Huse, of the Immunology Program, and Christina Leslie, of the Computational Biology Program, received Louise and Allston Boyer Young Investigator Awards.
  • Ping Chi, a physician-scientist in the Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program, received the Boyer Clinical Research Award.
  • George Bosl, former Chair of MSK’s Department of Medicine, received the Willet F. Whitmore Award for Clinical Excellence.

In addition to Dr. Langer, who also was presented with an honorary degree from GSK, honorees from beyond MSK were:

  • Charles M. Rice, the Maurice R. and Corinne P. Greenberg Professor in Virology at The Rockefeller University, who received the C. Chester Stock Award;
  • William G. Kaelin, Jr., a professor of medicine at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, who received the Katharine Berkan Judd Award; and
  • James R. Downing, President and CEO of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, who received the Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering Prize.