The Tapestry of Professional Life: Weaving Together Career & Family

Convocation keynote speakers Elizabeth Nabel and Gary Nabel with Memorial Sloan Kettering President Harold Varmus.

Convocation keynote speakers Elizabeth Nabel and Gary Nabel with Memorial Sloan Kettering President Harold Varmus.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center 31st Academic Convocation
Elizabeth G. Nabel, MD, President of Brigham and Women’s Hospital
Gary J. Nabel, MD, PhD, Director of the Vaccine Research Center, National Institutes of Health

Elizabeth Nabel: Thank you so much, Harold, for inviting us here today on this distinguished occasion. It is with great honor and pride that we congratulate the new graduates on their terrific achievement.

As many of you know, Gary and I are fervent supporters of the value of biomedical research. Here at Sloan Kettering, you are truly at the cutting edge amid the numerous fantastic opportunities that modern biomedicine presents.

It is especially meaningful for us to be here on this day at Harold’s last convocation.

All of us have benefited in one way or another from Harold’s extraordinary gifts of scientific acumen, academic leadership, and genuine character as a human being. He is truly a global scientist-statesman who bridges science and society to solve difficult problems.

Please join us in congratulating him on a job well done in all these capacities, and for continued success in his extraordinary service to science and medicine.

Gary and I are so pleased to speak to you today on The Tapestry of Professional Life: Weaving Together Career and Family.

We have been blessed throughout the years to be able to pursue our career aspirations while maintaining a wonderful and fulfilling life together, and I hope many of you can look forward to enjoying similar rewards in your own endeavors.

We’d like to offer some thoughts on how we integrate our personal and professional lives in a way that enables us to succeed at both. I’d like to focus on three themes: passion, diligence, and being what I call a “positive deviant.”

My first piece of advice is to discover and follow your passion. It is true that managing two careers, nurturing a marriage, and raising three children can’t be achieved by following a simple recipe. But it can be done, in large part because we believe in each other and in what we do. And we recognize the need to allow each other to follow our passions.

Those passions — for me, my family (Gary and our three children, Chris, Elisa, and Katherine) and medicine — are what have given me to this day the energy to work long hours in the lab or in the clinic, and then to burn the midnight oil writing papers and grants after the kids were tucked in. In fact, I remember full well completing an NIH R01 grant application just in time to go into labor with our third child, Katherine.

Often, doing it all seems to demand a high, seemingly impossible expectation of performance and human behavior. But working hard is easy if you are loved and if you love what you do.

I guess that for Gary and me, our passion, so to speak, began during our medical training. Some of you have met your life partners during your training: That was our beginning, too. Gary and I met when I was a resident and he was an intern at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Our first date was to settle a bet about a patient diagnosis.

He won. We went out for dinner at a lovely restaurant in Cambridge’s Central Square and experienced an armed robbery at the restaurant — quite dramatic!

Just a little over a year later, we got married. Managing two careers, nurturing our marriage, and raising three children has been a wild ride. But it has been so rewarding because we believe in each other and in what we do. We were lucky to have spent the early years in Ann Arbor, which was a very family-oriented community and allowed us the comfort of raising three young children with excellent support.

My second piece of advice is diligence, something that seems so obvious to all of us here — no one achieves a graduate degree without it. Indeed, there is a flavor of simplistic relentlessness to the word. But if diligence were our only goal in life, that life would seem narrow and unambiguous.

Yet understood as the great prerequisite of great accomplishment, diligence stands as one of the most difficult challenges facing anyone who takes on tasks of importance and consequence. Balancing a life in the lab, delivering patient care — or doing both — with the challenges and joys of family and personal life requires a strong resolve and quite a bit of energy.

My father, who was a chemist at 3M, taught me many things but one of his most important lessons was the need to find and keep the stamina to persist through failure. He would say that more than 50 percent of the time, his results were negative or did not turn out as planned. Yet he continued to learn from each experiment, gathering new insights for the next one.

I remember when our son, Chris, was five years old and was part of a family interview for the Ann Arbor News. The journalist asked Chris what he wanted to be when he grew up. Chris replied, “A cell doctor.” The journalist then said, “Don’t you want to be a heart doctor?” Chris replied with a startled expression on his face, “Why no, only girls are heart doctors!” Chris has followed the path of diligence and passion and now is an MD/PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania. His grandfather would be very proud.

The way we see it is that diligence isn’t enough on its own: Passion provides the fuel. Working hard is easy if you love what you do.

My final advice is to have courage and take risks. While working hard and following your own character compass, to succeed you must also stand up for what you believe in, and that’s where being a positive deviant comes in.

What things will you accomplish for patients, for public health here and abroad, and especially for the underserved everywhere? The road to achieving success will involve many choices and during all these steps, you will have the opportunity to take risks.

Every new challenge Gary and I have encountered over the years — whether in learning, in research, in patient care, in leadership, in raising children — has called upon an ability to take chances on a future that has no guarantees.

In both personal and professional pursuits, we’ve had to blend a mix of knowledge, flexibility amid unpredictable change, and keeping an ear to the wisdom of experience.

Thus, the third ingredient in my recipe for success is not being afraid to be different, especially when you can use your past triumphs to help a worthy cause. When I accepted my previous job as Director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the path of least resistance would have been simply to “keep the trains running” by paying grants and not sending the academic community any surprises. “Just give us the money, leave us alone, and we’ll get the job done” is the popular refrain at the NIH. And there is a lot of truth to that belief: Unfettered creativity is the spark for discovery.

But leaders have to lead, and that means taking a look at the big picture and doing what’s best for everybody: for communities of scientists, for communities of patients, for communities of health providers, for the people who don’t have a voice at all.

By being a positive deviant, I used my position at the NHLBI to rally for issues:

  • for expanding stem cell research
  • for helping young investigators succeed
  • for confronting the looming crisis of non-communicable chronic diseases worldwide with a viable global health program
  • for bringing the Framingham Heart Study concept into the 21st century, through cohort studies that engage communities of African Americans, Latinos, and other groups at risk.

And, at Brigham and Women’s, for focusing hard on increasing representation of women and minorities in leadership positions in science and medicine.

JFK famously said, “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.”

And, as you can see, we could not agree more.

One of the reasons I came back to academia was the incredible opportunity to be an instrument of change, especially in this era of healthcare reform. Our challenge, no less, is to redefine the leadership role of academic medical centers in preserving the precious missions of research, education, and community service as well as outstanding clinical care during times of great economic pressure. My job is to create a nurturing and supportive environment for you — the leaders of tomorrow.

Your job is to take risks, foster innovation, and nurture creativity — these are the engines of change. This requires vision, insight, and strong character. But we are counting on you as an investment in our future.

Arriving at meaningful solutions is an inevitably slow and difficult process. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try.

Congratulations on the honor of joining a distinguished group of intellects who are committed as scientists to improving health through research. I look forward, over the years, to hearing about your many successes — and the change they inspired along the way.

Gary …

Gary Nabel: Thanks, Betsy. I also want to personally thank Harold for inviting us here today. Harold, in his former post as NIH Director, was the one to recruit us to the NIH eleven years ago: me to lead the NIH Vaccine Research Center, and Betsy for a senior leadership position at the NHLBI, the Institute she would later direct.

That career move proved to be a wonderful scientific adventure for both of us and we have you, Harold, to thank for making it possible. As we acknowledge the importance of balancing family and career here today, I also want to honor your own bright star, the multitalented Connie, herself a leading light in a wide range of pursuits that span writing, editing, gardening, and conservation. She has navigated life’s journey with you and charted her own remarkable professional career while balancing your family needs. Connie, thank you for your many contributions and for sharing Harold with the rest of us.

I want to build on Betsy’s previous comments and talk more about weaving together career and family.

But first, I have a confession to make: The truth is I actually lost the bet with Betsy about the diagnosis for that patient. I was wrong about the diagnosis, and Betsy was right.

However, like a good scientific experiment, I had structured the bet in a way that I couldn’t lose in the grand scheme of things: The stakes were “dinner,” and either way, we would be able to go out together. The only question was whether she or I would pay for dinner. So, no matter what the outcome, our first date was secured. And the rest is history …

As Betsy and I have journeyed together through the joys and challenges of family life and biomedical research, the balancing act has always involved being attentive to “family” in a broader sense.

We are all part of many families — vital communities that nurture and support us, and to whom we give back. Perhaps the three most important are our immediate family, our scientific family, and our global family.

Here on the occasion of this graduation ceremony, consider your own families. You didn’t arrive at this place alone, nor will you continue on your journey alone.

Your immediate families have nurtured and supported you. They share in your success and celebration today, and I would like to extend my thanks to them on your behalf and my congratulations to you all. Our own children have been the centerpiece of our lives. And we marvel at their resilience in tolerating us and their insight into the world around them. Our youngest daughter, Katherine, one day made our heads turn during a kitchen conversation when she calmly noted that the main difference between her Mom and Dad is that Mom is more organized and Dad is more focused. Our children know us better and see the world more clearly than we do.

You also have become members of a larger scientific family and have developed a network of mentors, colleagues, and friendships that will last a lifetime.

In large measure, your success in life will come from balancing your personal and professional life — in the way you find your place within these communities.

I think that in every case, the strategy is basically the same: Take care of the important details and one-on-one relationships, then let things grow organically.

Certainly, your own happiness and that of your immediate family must be your core priority. But your professional life requires the same basic approach: You start as an individual, you seek valued partners, mentors, and colleagues, and you build your relationships.

Along the way, you respond to new circumstances, you change course, but you will be protected by the communities you’ve built and nurtured.

So, for those of you starting a lab, first things first: Prioritize setting up your lab, getting the papers out, finding funding. Stay small and focused until you get your ducks in a row.

Over time, as your personal relationships grow and your scientific collaborations expand, you can begin to reach further into broader communities, such as addressing the science and policy of global health issues and solving other big problems that benefit from your having a solid footing.

In that way, you become part of a global family.

Throughout your lives, balancing your professional and personal lives will sometimes be challenging, but ultimately fulfilling and rewarding. And I agree fully with Betsy that passion is the critical undercurrent, both in your personal lives and in science.

This is not the place to talk about passion in our personal lives — you can figure it out (but don’t neglect it).

But what about passion in science? What is it that drives our passion for scientific discovery? While many factors contribute, I have come to believe that our scientific passions are largely driven by wonder. What do I mean by wonder?

Throughout history, wonder has been a great force for humankind, and not just in the scientific realm. As noted by Richard Holmes in his 2008 book The Age of Wonder, scientific discovery has had profound effects on creativity, inspiring poets of the Romantic period such as Keats, Byron, Shelley, and Wordsworth.

In fact, the scientists of the Romantic era, who discovered new planets and their moons, and laid the foundations for chemistry and electromagnetism, inspired these poets. In many cases, they were good friends and social companions, parts of each others’ personal families, and through these relationships they shared their excitement about the wonders of the world.

This common thread — their shared wonder for the world — is probably best captured by Wordsworth in an excerpt from his famous lyric poem of 1802:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky
So was it when my life began
So is it now that I am a man
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die! …

These words speak simply but eloquently to all of us hooked on the joy of discovery. They underscore how we scientists retain our childlike curiosity no matter our age. It is the source of our passion.

Another factor that drives us in research is relevance. I am a physician-scientist who loves basic research and greatly value my scientific family, my research colleagues. But I am even more gratified when scientific discovery benefits patients. This is what we seek in an AIDS vaccine or in cures for cancer. They help us serve our global family.

For all of you starting out in research, the 21st century promises unprecedented opportunities to make a difference. Equipped with the most sophisticated training and technology in history, you can attack the most pressing causes of human suffering: cancer, global infectious disease, and mental illness, to name a few.

Our message to you today, on the brink of your bright future, is to live life to the fullest. Achieving the future you want — and one that will drive the progress that will help many others — requires vision, insight, and strong character.

Congratulations on the honor of joining the scientific family, committed to improving health through research. We look forward, over the years, to hearing about your many successes — and the change they inspired along the way.

Thank you and Godspeed.