Class Of '96
DR. WHO: Harold Varmus poked fun at himself at Harvard.
Colleges and universities recognized the scientific achievements of Nobel laureates, distinguished alumni, government officials, and one famous frog in awarding honorary degrees during commencement exercises this spring.
Schools large and small, looking to recognize either a specific accomplishment or an entire career of superlative performance, named a wide range of science educators and researchers to receive honorary doctorates (see list on page 8). And those researchers who spoke to graduates had a fairly consistent message: Working in a field you truly enjoy brings the highest rewards.
Many of the scientists honored were repeat recipients. For biochemist and Nobel laureate Gertrude B. Elion, who has been given 25 honorary degrees, it was the first few occasions that generated the greatest thrill.
'DAMN THE TORPEDOES': Gertrude Elion limits addresses to three minutes and general themes.
"The first three that I got, I got before I got the Nobel Prize. Therefore, those three were exceedingly important to me," notes Elion, who was given an honorary doctor of science degree this spring by Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science and by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.
Elion, a scientist, emeritus, at Wellcome Research Laboratories in Research Triangle Park, N.C., shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for helping to develop drugs to treat cancer, prevent the rejection of transplanted kidneys, and fight herpes virus infections. She is one of the few Nobel science laureates to be so honored without having a doctorate. Her first three honorary degrees-from George Washington University, Brown University, and the University of Michigan-hold special significance for just that reason.
"They were the final stamp that said, yes, you're the equivalent of a Ph.D.," she says.
SECRET: Interim Johns Hopkins head Daniel Nathans.
Among the Nobel winners joining Elion: 1995 laureate Frederick Reines, a professor, emeritus, of physics at the University of California, Irvine, honored by Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland; 1989 laureate Sidney Altman, the Sterling Professor of Biology at Yale University, cited by Dartmouth College; 1978 laureate Daniel Nathans, the interim president of Johns Hopkins University, which conferred an honorary degree on him; 1990 winner Joseph Murray, a professor, emeritus, of surgery at Harvard University, recognized by McGill University in Canada; and Yuan Tseh Lee, the president of Taiwan's Academia Sinica and a 1986 Nobelist, named by the University of Maryland, College Park.
Nathans's degree was particularly unexpected, as it had been kept a secret from him and given by Johns Hopkins as a surprise in appreciation of his service. Nathans, a molecular biologist and geneticist who will relinquish the institution's presidency to physician William R. Brody in September, seemed prescient when he told graduates before his degree was announced, "Today is a wonderful, memorable day for us all."
Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, Rootstown, took the unusual step of presenting honorary degrees to a pair of brothers who grew up in nearby Akron. K. Frank Austen is the Theodore Bevier Bayles Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Allergic Disease Research Section in the Division of Rheumatology and Immunology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. His brother, W. Gerald Austen, is the Edward D. Churchill Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School and surgeon-in-chief at Massachusetts General Hospital.
"Science and technology have completely revolutionized the care of patients and markedly improved what we, the physicians, can offer," Gerald Austen stated in his speech. "Life expectancy in this country has risen on average from approximately 67 years in the early 1950s to about 76 years at the present time. Even more important, the span of productive, enjoyable life has similarly increased."
Frank Austen described how his research in immunology has led to the development of drugs, now gaining regulatory approval, that block the actions of substances causing bronchial asthma. "Thus I have had the personal joy of pursuing a scientific problem at its most primitive level, and seeing its resolution over three decades in molecular and therapeutic terms," he said.
Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., acknowledging one scientist's struggle against political forces, awarded a doctor of humane letters to Rudolf Zahradnìk, the president of the Czech Republic's Academy of Sciences. Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he was stripped of his position as a research director at the Institute of Physical Chemistry at the Czechoslovak Academy of Science. While he was prevented from teaching at universities because of his independent thinking, Zahradnìk worked informally with students and associates.
The peaceful liberation of Eastern Europe in the late 1980s led "many of his colleagues in Prague [to see him] as the person who could lead them into the modern nonpartisan world of science policy," according to the degree citation. "This is how he became the first president of the reorganized Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic."
CRYSTAL BALL: Donna E. Shalala predicted that a Mount Holyoke graduate will be president.
U.S. government officials in the sciences found themselves on the pages of many commencement programs. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala was recognized by Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.; National Institutes of Health director Harold E. Varmus spoke at Harvard; National Science Foundation director Neal F. Lane received a degree from Ohio State University; and Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., honored National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony S. Fauci.
Shalala predicted that one of the Mount Holyoke grads she was addressing some day would be elected to the presidency.
"You have more access to education, to jobs, to money and credit, and to the political system than any previous generation of American women," she declared. "In the halls of academia, yesterday's college students have become today's chancellors and deans; surgeons and judges; Nobel laureates and Olympic athletes; senators and Cabinet secretaries."
Varmus, a 1989 Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine, began with self-deprecating remarks on the underwhelming response with which Harvard students initially greeted the university's announcement earlier in the year that he would speak. He noted that Harvard's student newspaper, surveying undergraduates' reaction to the news, reported such comments as "Who is he?" and "Wow, that's boring. Everyone got someone exciting." Varmus then proceeded to his main point, that science improves lives and must therefore enjoy substantial governmental support.
"I speak for an element of our culture at least as important as politics or war-an element that has not been at this podium since Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, addressed the graduating class of 1945," he said. "That element is science."
Varmus, who observed that campus editorials had referred to him as "Dr. Who," was not the only scientist whose audience may have had problems placing his name. Several of his colleagues found themselves sharing the honorary-degree spotlight with more-recognized celebrities. At Yale, for example, neurosurgeon Benjamin Solomon Carson of Johns Hopkins University and psychology professor Eleanor J. Gibson of Cornell University were joined by singer-songwriter Paul Simon.
Meanwhile, eminent science sociologist Robert K. Merton, University Professor, Emeritus, at Columbia University, was honored by Long Island University's Southampton College, which also awarded an honorary doctorate of amphibious letters to Kermit the Frog. The Muppet was cited by Southampton-known for its marine and environmental sciences programs-for helping to raise environmental awareness.
SMALL THINGS: "Go for the touchdown," but enjoy lesser triumphs, too, advised Philippa Marrack
The struggle for those scientists who spoke at commencement exercises, of course, was to say something original. When she is asked to speak to graduates, Elion reports, "the first thing I say is, 'I don't do commencement addresses.' The second thing I say is, 'If you insist on my saying something, I will do it in three minutes.' I do not give commencement addresses, because what do you say that hasn't really been said before?"
Elion gave one of her three-minute speeches to graduates of Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science. She says she stuck to her usual themes: advising students to do what they enjoy and to set goals. "The final [theme], and this one always goes over big, is [to tell graduates] to never stop. Remember the words of Admiral Farragut: 'Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.' It's something they remember."
Like Elion, Bennett Lorber, the Durant Professor of Medicine and a professor of microbiology and immunology at Temple University's School of Medicine, urged graduates of Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa., to "love your work" and "go with your heart."
Advising grads to keep "minds and hearts open," Lorber noted: "In caring for people with AIDS for the past 15 years, I have seen much pain and suffering. But I have also seen acts of courage worthy of Greek myths-and I have witnessed acts of kindness, self-sacrifice, and decency to match the lives of the saints."
In a brief speech to grads at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., honorary-degree recipient Philippa Marrack, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, recommended going "for the touchdown," but pointed out that touchdowns don't happen very often in life.
"So in science and, I hope, in your careers, too, you will find a way to take pleasure in small things," she added. "The fact that your computer program still runs properly, that when we run a gel, the DNA bands are in the right place even though they're not telling us the answer we had hoped for, but at least they're there on the gel like you expected them to be. And for those of you who are not going to be scientists [or] computer programmers, [that] when you fold the laundry and you put the socks in pairs, you don't end with an extra blue sock at the end."
1996's ROLL CALL OF HONOR
|A partial listing of scientists given honorary degrees by universities and colleges this spring:|
- Amherst College, Amherst, Mass.:
- Stephen P. Goff, professor of biochemistry, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons
| Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland: Oscar Ratnoff, professor, emeritus, of medicine, Case Western Reserve University Frederick Reines, professor, emeritus, of physics, University of California, Irvine; recipient of 1995 Nobel Prize in physics || Colgate University, Hamilton, N.Y.: Anthony S. Fauci, director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases || College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va.: William Jackson Payne, Alumni Foundation Distinguished Professor of Microbiology, Emeritus, University of Georgia || Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.: Sidney Altman, Sterling Professor of Biology, Yale University; recipient of 1989 Nobel Prize in chemistry George M. Woodwell, founder, president, and director, Woods Hole Research Center, Woods Hole, Mass. || Georgetown University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Washington, D.C.: Rudolf Zahradnìk, president, Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic |
| Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.: Harold Amos, former Maude and Lillian Presley Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Harvard Medical School Charles Slichter, professor of physics and chemistry, Center for Advanced Study, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Harold E. Varmus, director, National Institutes of Health; recipient of 1989 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine || Hebrew University, Jerusalem: Philip Leder, John Emory Andrus Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School || Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y.: Michael Wigler, senior staff scientist, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. || Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore: Norman Hackerman, former president, University of Texas, Austin; former president, Rice University, Houston Daniel Nathans, interim president, Johns Hopkins University; recipient of 1978 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine || Lafayette College, Easton, Pa.: Judith S. Rodin, psychologist; president, University of Pennsylvania || Long Island University, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Michael J. Siciliano, Muller Professor of Molecular Genetics, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and Tumor Institute, Houston Regina M. Benjamin, clinical professor and preceptor for rural medicine/family medicine clerkships, University of Alabama, Birmingham, and University of South Alabama medical schools |
| Long Island University, Southampton College, Southampton, N.Y.: Robert K. Merton, University Professor, Emeritus, Columbia University || Macalester College, St. Paul, Minn.: Philippa C. Marrack, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center || McGill University, Montreal: Joseph Murray, professor, emeritus, of surgery, Harvard University; recipient of 1990 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine || Mercer University, Atlanta: David Satcher, director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta || Moravian College, Bethlehem, Pa.: Howard E. Gardner, professor of education and adjunct professor of psychology, Harvard University; adjunct professor of neurology, Boston University School of Medicine || Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Mass.: Margaret W. Conkey, chairwoman, department of anthropology, and director, Archaeological Research Facility, University of California, Berkeley Donna E. Shalala, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services |
| Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, Rootstown: K. Frank Austen, Theodore Bevier Bayles Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; director, Allergic Disease Research Section, Division of Rheumatology and Immunology, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston W. Gerald Austen, Edward D. Churchill Professor of Surgery, Harvard Medical School; surgeon-in-chief, Massachusetts General Hospital || Ohio State University, Columbus: Neal F. Lane, director, National Science Foundation || Pennsylvania State University, University Park: Edward N. Lorenz, professor, emeritus, of meteorology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology || Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science: Gertrude B. Elion, scientist, emeritus, Wellcome Research Laboratories; recipient of 1988 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine || Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.: Robert M. May, chief scientific adviser and head, Office of Science and Technology, Great Britain George A. Miller, James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, Princeton University || Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.: William Hayes, president, St. John's College, Oxford University; senior research fellow, Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford University Masayasu Nomura, Grace Bell Professor of Biological Chemistry, College of Medicine, University of California, Irvine |
| Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N.Y.: Gertrude B. Elion, scientist, emeritus, Wellcome Research Laboratories, Research Triangle Park, N.C.; recipient of 1988 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine || Rockefeller University, New York: Sydney Brenner, member, Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, Calif. Victor Hamburger, E. Mallinckrodt Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Washington University, St. Louis || Rollins College, Winter Park, Fla.: Ernst Mayr, Alexander Agassiz Professor, Emeritus, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University || Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.: David J. Mahoney, chairman and chief executive officer, Charles A. Dana Foundation John A. Pino, independent consultant in animal sciences, Westport, Conn. || Seattle University: W.T. Edmondson, professor, emeritus, of zoology, University of Washington || State University of New York, Oswego: Robert E. Grulich, director of European Clinical Operations, Bristol-Myers Squibb International Corp., Brussels, Belgium |
| Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pa.: Bennett Lorber, Durant Professor of Medicine and professor of microbiology and immunology, Temple University School of Medicine Andries van Dam, Thomas J. Watson, Jr. University Professor of Technology and Education, Brown University || Thiel College, Greenville, Pa.: James Kushlan, director, National Biological Service Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, Md. || University of Bologna, Italy: Robert K. Merton, University Professor, Emeritus, Columbia University || University of Maine, Orono: Arthur L. Bloom, professor of geological sciences, Cornell University Seymour Papert, LEGO Professor of Learning Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory || University of Maryland, College Park: Robert Fischell, president and chairman, IsoStent Inc., Dayton, Md. Yuan Tseh Lee, president, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan; recipient of 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry || University of Minnesota, Minneapolis: Daniel Janzen, professor of biology, University of Pennsylvania |
| University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia: Arnold J. Levine, Harry C. Weiss Professor in Life Sciences and chairman of molecular biology, Princeton University Maurice V. Wilkes, professor, emeritus, of computer technology, University of Cambridge; adviser, research strategy, Olivetti Research Ltd., Cambridge, England || University of Surrey, England: Rita R. Colwell, president, University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute || University of Western Ontario, London, Canada: Ramsay Gunton, professor, emeritus, of medicine, University of Western Ontario Robert Hinde, Master of St. John's College, Cambridge University, England Irene Uchida, professor, emerita, of pediatrics and pathology, and director, Cytogenetics Laboratory, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada || University of Wisconsin, Madison: Etta Zuber Falconer, Fuller E. Calloway Professor of Mathematics, Spelman College, Atlanta Frances Keesler Graham, professor, emerita, department of psychology, University of Delaware Ralph F. Hirschmann, Makineni Professor of Bioorganic Chemistry, University of Pennsylvania Robert Serber, professor, emeritus, of physics, Columbia University || Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn: Jay Levy, professor in residence, department of medicine, and research associate, Cancer Research Institute, University of California School of Medicine, San Francisco John Sawhill, president and chief executive officer, The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, Va. || Yale University, New Haven, Conn.: Benjamin Solomon Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery, associate professor of neurological surgery, oncology, and plastic surgery, and associate professor of pediatrics, Johns Hopkins University Eleanor J. Gibson, Susan Linn Sage Professor of Psychology, Cornell University |