MSK’s Virtual Convocation and Commencement Honors Graduates and Award Winners

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MSK leadership on the stage in the Zuckerman Research Center auditorium.

This year's virtual convocation and commencement ceremony was broadcast from a nearly empty auditorium.

Memorial Sloan Kettering’s 41st annual Academic Convocation and Commencement ceremony, held on May 27, looked quite different this year. Rather than being filled with the smiling faces of graduates and their family members, as well as those of other honorees, the auditorium at the Zuckerman Research Center was almost empty. Four members of MSK’s leadership team spread out across the stage while just a handful of socially distanced staff stood by to make sure the virtual event ran smoothly.

This year’s graduates from the Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences made important contributions in cancer biology, immunology, and more. Learn about their accomplishments and their thesis research.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way that MSK celebrated, it does not diminish the pride that the institution feels for the eight students from the Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSK) who received their PhD degrees this year. And although Nobel Laureate James Allison wasn’t able to give his commencement address in person, he was on hand from Texas to congratulate the graduates by video conference and offer them some words of advice.

The event also recognized the 34 students from the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences graduating this year who conducted their thesis research in MSK laboratories, as well as gifted trainees and distinguished scientists and clinicians from MSK and beyond.

MSK President Craig B. Thompson kicked off the online ceremony by highlighting some of the awards won by investigators from MSK throughout the past year, noting, “It’s been an incredible year at MSK.”

Recognizing Top Researchers

Sloan Kettering Institute Director Joan Massagué presented a dozen basic research awards to graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and more established members of the cancer research community. This year for the first time, three fellowships were bestowed as part of the new Marie-Josée Kravis Women in Science Endeavor (WiSE) at MSK.

MSK Physician-in-Chief Lisa DeAngelis presented the clinical research awards. Among the recipients were medical oncologist Carol Aghajanian, who received the Willet F. Whitmore Award for Clinical Excellence. Every year this award honors an MSK clinician for their talent, dedication, and compassion.

Dr. DeAngelis also presented The Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering Prize, which recognizes groundbreaking contributions to pediatric oncology. This year it went to two recipients, MSK physician-scientist Michel Sadelain and Carl June of the University of Pennsylvania, for their work on chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy. CAR T therapy — in which a patient’s immune cells are removed from the blood, armed with new proteins that allow them to recognize cancer, and given back to the patient — has been a game-changer for the treatment of many pediatric leukemias.

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“A New Chapter”

James Allison on a computer screen

Nobel Laureate James Allison addressed the graduates from Texas.

Dr. Thompson introduced Dr. Allison, who this year received the Memorial Sloan Kettering Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Biomedical Science, as well as an honorary degree from GSK. Dr. Allison led SKI’s Immunology Program from 2004 to 2012 and is now at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Dr. Allison, a pioneer in the field of cancer immunotherapy, began his talk by acknowledging that having a virtual ceremony because of COVID-19 is not the same as walking across a stage “to mark the beginning of a new chapter of this journey.”

He remarked on the scientific accomplishments of all the students, adding that their thesis projects “represent work at the very cutting edge of basic and translational cancer research.”

Dr. Allison advised the graduates to “dive more deeply into the areas that interest you” going forward and to follow their passions. It’s time to fly and “extend your wings as far as you can and find something you love,” he told them.

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Honoring the Next Generation of Scientists

After Dr. Allison completed his address, GSK Dean Michael Overholtzer delivered his remarks to the graduates. “You each made your own new discoveries, and you wound up teaching us through your research and through your dedication and your passion for this process everything that this next generation of great leaders has to offer,” he said.

Dr. Overholtzer then introduced a video in which the mentors of the eight GSK graduates praised their hard work and dedication and wished them well in their future careers.

At the conclusion of the event, Dr. Thompson also congratulated the degree recipients. Then a video of the graduates moving their tassels from the right side to the left was played. After the ceremony concluded, in place of the traditional reception, the graduates were invited to have a video chat with Dr. Allison.

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Recognizing Important Accomplishments

During the ceremony, awards were presented to a number of other investigators within the MSK community:

In addition to Dr. Allison and Dr. June, the other honorees from outside MSK were:

  • Katherine High, a professor emerita at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who received the C. Chester Stock Award. Dr. High delivered the Stock Award lecture on May 20.
  • Ronald Vale, executive director of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus, who received the Katharine Berkan Judd Award. On June 1, Dr. Vale will deliver the Judd Award lecture as part of MSK’s “Science Spotlight” series.
  • Dr. June’s lecture and Dr. Sadelain’s lecture are also available to watch online.
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