After two years of ceremonies conducted online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) welcomed some attendees back to the Zuckerman Research Center auditorium for its 43rd Academic Convocation and Commencement. The event, which took place on May 18, 2022, was a celebration of talented scientists, including the Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSK) class of 2022.
In addition to the eight graduates who received their PhD degrees from GSK this year, the ceremony honored 45 students graduating from the Sloan Kettering Division of the Weill Cornell Medicine Graduate School of Medical Sciences. As in past years, the annual event also recognized gifted trainees and eminent scientists and doctors from MSK and beyond.
This year’s honorary degree recipient and commencement speaker was Levi Garraway, Chief Medical Officer and Executive Vice President for Roche and Genentech. To mark the 10th anniversary of the first graduating class of GSK students, MSK’s leadership also recognized Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., whose vision and generosity led to the school’s founding. The first GSK class enrolled in 2006.
MSK President and CEO Craig B. Thompson highlighted important initiatives launched at MSK over the past year, including The Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis Cancer Ecosystems Project and the Lisa and Scott Stuart Center for Adolescent and Young Adult Cancers.
He also told attendees about MSK’s latest efforts to improve equality, diversity, and inclusion, noting that MSK has taken “vital steps over this last year to diversify the people that it trains and educates, and the leaders who will steer the institution.” He added, “These efforts are matched by new community outreach programs to improve health equity.”
Honoring Promising Trainees and Leading Scientists and Clinicians
GSK Dean Michael Overholtzer then took the stage to present awards to talented graduate students doing their research in MSK labs. The students represented GSK, Weill Cornell, and the Tri-Institutional MD-PhD Program of MSK, Weill Cornell, and The Rockefeller University.
Ushma Neill, Vice President for Scientific Education and Training, presented awards to several postdoctoral research fellows. She also recognized the graduate and postdoctoral recipients of Marie-Josée Kravis Women in Science Endeavor (WiSE) fellowships, created in 2020, and winners of the Maximizing Excellence in Research, Innovation, and Technology (MERIT) awards, created this year to fund the research of young investigators from historically underrepresented groups.
Sloan Kettering Institute (SKI) Director and GSK Provost Joan Massagué also welcomed the graduates and guests before presenting the Louise and Allston Boyer Young Investigator Award for Basic Research to Lydia Finley, an Assistant Member in SKI’s Cell Biology Program. He also announced the recipient of the Katharine Berkan Judd Award, which this year went to Carol Prives of Columbia University.
For the clinical research awards, MSK Physician-in-Chief and Chief Medical Officer Lisa DeAngelis announced several recipients, including Mini Kamboj, who won this year’s Willet F. Whitmore Award for Clinical Excellence. Every year, this award honors an MSK clinician for their talent, dedication, and compassion.
Dr. Kamboj, MSK’s Chief Medical Epidemiologist and an expert in infectious disease, was recognized especially for her role during the COVID-19 pandemic, where her expertise made her an invaluable resource for MSK patients, staff, and families.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic … her insights helped guide hospital policy and were critical to efforts across MSK, including the development of our own COVID-19 test,” Dr. DeAngelis said. “We all recognize and deeply appreciate Mini’s compassion and composure during this unprecedented healthcare crisis.”
‘Focus Wholeheartedly on Mastering Your Craft’
Dr. Thompson then introduced Dr. Garraway, who received the Memorial Sloan Kettering Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Biomedical Science. Scott Stuart, Chair of MSK’s Boards, and Alan Schnitzer, Chair of GSK, joined Dr. Thompson to read the medal citation and present Dr. Garraway with an honorary degree from GSK.
Dr. Garraway has made important contributions to genomics-driven precision cancer medicine. His research group at Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute helped lay groundwork that was essential to establishing precision medicine approaches for treating cancer. More recently, as a leader in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, he has shepherded the development of important cancer therapies and overseen pivotal clinical trials.
Dr. Garraway began by telling the graduates: “Articulating the successful application of the scientific method to teach the world something that it didn’t previously know — that is something that only a small percentage of humanity can ever say.”
He went on to say to the graduates: “[You are at] just the beginning of the next phase of a journey that will give you a chance … to focus wholeheartedly on mastering your craft.” He added that, as biomedical scientists, “our craft is really at its core about the ability to ask interesting and important questions. And then to answer those questions.”
He ended by saying: “In my experience, those who are able to focus wholeheartedly on mastery of their craft never need to go searching for opportunities. Instead, opportunity will find you. Choosing this path also brings a blend of passion and rigor and belief that has the power to infuse deep meaning into your own lives, and perhaps even to change the world.”
Honoring the Next Generation of Scientists
This year’s student speaker was GSK graduate Kevin Boehm, who is currently enrolled in the Tri-Institutional MD-PhD Program. Dr. Boehm spoke about the strong feeling of community at GSK before going on to highlight the achievements of each of his fellow graduates.
“Don’t miss this opportunity to celebrate one of the most significant contributions of your life,” said Mr. Gerstner, the founder of GSK, in accepting a yearbook celebrating the 10th anniversary of the first GSK class.
Dr. Overholtzer told the graduates: “Each of you embodies the optimism that actually defines the promise of science. We admire your achievements in research, and I can’t wait to see what you do next.”
Recognizing Important Accomplishments
During the ceremony, awards were presented to other investigators within the MSK community:
- Paolo Giovanelli, a graduate student in Alexander Rudensky’s lab, received the Dorris J. Hutchison Graduate Fellowship.
- Abderhman Abuhashem, a graduate student in Anna-Katerina Hadjantonakis’ lab, received a Barbara and Stephen Friedman Graduate Fellowship.
- Zhouyang Shen, a graduate student in Philipp Niethammer’s lab, received the Bruce Charles Forbes Graduate Fellowship.
- Kalina Belcheva, a graduate student in Jayanta Chaudhuri’s lab, received the General Atlantic Graduate Research Fellowship Award.
- Brianna Naizir, a graduate student in Andrea Schietinger’s lab, and Xiuzhen Chen, a postdoctoral fellow in Christine Mayr’s lab, received fellowships from Marie-Josée Kravis Women in Science Endeavor.
- Agnieszka Lukaszewicz, a senior research scientist in Maria Jasin’s lab; Álvaro Quintanal Villalonga, Co-Director of Charles Rudin’s lab; and Chongyuan Wang, a fellow in Stephen Long’s lab, received Postdoctoral Research Awards.
- Stephen Ruiz, a graduate student in Daniel Heller’s lab, and Luis Felipe Somarribas Patterson, a postdoctoral fellow in Santosha Vardhana’s lab, received MERIT Mandel Awards. Christopher Bourne, a graduate student in David Scheinberg’s lab, received the MERIT Sawyers Award.
- Arianna Baggiolini, a fellow in Lorenz Studer’s lab, and Daniel Fernando Zegarra Ruiz, a fellow in Gretchen Diehl’s lab, received Tri-Institutional Breakout Prizes for Junior Investigators.
- Lydia Finley, an Assistant Member in SKI’s Cell Biology Program, received the Louise and Allston Boyer Young Investigator Award for Basic Research.
- Alexander Drilon, Chief of the Early Drug Development Service, received the Louise and Allston Boyer Young Investigator Award for Clinical Research.
- Mini Kamboj, MSK’s Chief Medical Epidemiologist, received the Willet F. Whitmore Award for Clinical Excellence, which is presented to a clinician whose talent, dedication, and compassion reflect the standards set by Willet F. Whitmore during his more than 46 years of service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
The 2022 honorees from outside MSK were:
- Carol Prives, Da Costa Professor of Biology in the Department of Biological Sciences in the Herbert and Florence Irving Institute for Cancer Dynamics at Columbia University, received the Katharine Berkan Judd Award.
- Kevan Shokat, a professor and former Chair of the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at the University of California San Francisco and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, received the C. Chester Stock Award Lectureship.
- Richard Gilbertson, a pediatric oncologist at Cancer Research UK, received the Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering Prize.