“Memorial Sloan Kettering has a special and storied tradition,” said Memorial Sloan Kettering President Craig B. Thompson, welcoming graduates, their guests, and Center staff to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s 32nd annual Convocation on May 12 in the Rockefeller Research Laboratories Auditorium.
This was Dr. Thompson’s first as president of the institution but not his first Memorial Sloan Kettering Convocation. “I had the privilege of attending and participating in this ceremony last year and it was then that I realized what a special place Memorial Sloan Kettering is,” he said. (In 2010, while still Director of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Thompson received Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Katharine Berkan Judd Award Lectureship.)
“I think the most important thing we have is our ’people capital,’” he observed. “And this is the day when we recognize and reward the excellence within our staff in both clinical care and research, as well as honor the future leaders in biomedicine who have trained here.”
Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Academic Convocation honors research as it is embodied in many individuals, including students who have earned their PhD degrees for work conducted in Memorial Sloan Kettering’s laboratories, younger Memorial Sloan Kettering physicians and scientists, and postdoctoral research fellows. Also recognized are established clinicians and investigators from the Center and beyond. This year, 26 students received their PhD degrees from Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, an academic partnership between Weill Cornell Medical College and the Sloan Kettering Institute. The winners of the Samuel and May Rudin Awards for Excellence in Nursing were also recognized. (Read more about the nurses recognized.)
Marc Tessier-Lavigne, President of The Rockefeller University and a world leader in the study of brain development, delivered the Convocation keynote address, discussing the challenges and opportunities confronting scientists in an increasingly complex world. “As biomedical researchers, we’re faced with the growing specter of reduced federal funding for our research. As citizens and residents of this country, we’re faced with an uncertain economic climate that affects everything from the price of gas and food to housing and tuition, and which has robbed many people of their jobs,” he said. “And as citizens of the world, we’re faced with environmental challenges stemming from climate change and the unwise use of natural resources.”
However, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne continued, alongside these challenges are enormous opportunities, many of them brought about by scientific and technological advances. “I believe that with the right focus, we can mine these opportunities to innovate our way out of many of the problems confronting us,” he said. “For biologists, this is truly a golden age of basic research, disease research, and translational medicine. As a result of the biological revolution over the past two decades, we can look forward to understanding — with a resolution that was unimaginable just a few years ago — how the cell works and how the brain works and how the organism develops, fights infection, regenerates itself, and ages.”
Dr. Tessier-Lavigne explained that this revolution has stimulated a new convergence of science and medicine, as powerful new tools make it possible to address disease processes with the same rigor scientists have used to address basic biologic processes. He said that nowhere has this convergence been more evident than in cancer research. “The targeting of cancer drivers and blood vessel growth factors that were identified in the 1990s and 2000s, and the recent harnessing of the immune system to reject tumors, has led to a first wave of targeted therapies that are showing significant benefits in cancers as diverse as leukemia, breast cancer, lung cancer, and melanoma.” He remarked that “many of these advances have occurred at Memorial Sloan Kettering” and predicted that the face of cancer treatment will be transformed in the next two decades with significantly prolonged survival for many cancers “and cures for some.”
“Whether you choose to continue in scientific research or to embrace one of the many other exciting paths open to you as scientists …choose one that you’re passionate about and focus and dig deep into your subject matter,” Dr. Tessier-Lavigne counseled the graduates. “Mastery of your field provides the necessary substrate for creativity and real advance… Focus, be rigorous — don’t settle for half measures. Above all, strive for excellence.”
Dr. Tessier-Lavigne also advised graduates not to allow setbacks to discourage them. “A healthy attitude toward setbacks is needed if you’re to take the calculated risks that are required not just for success but also for personal fulfillment,” he said. “I’m not talking about being reckless, but rather embracing a path that’s exciting or potentially transformative and seems within your reach, but which is nonetheless outside your immediate comfort zone and where the outcome is less assured than if you were to stick with the status quo…It’s been said that experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. If I can leave you with one message, it’s to encourage you to embrace calculated risk taking, knowing you will reap the reward — or at least the experience.”
At the conclusion of his remarks, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne received the Memorial Sloan Kettering Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Biomedical Research.