Office of the Dean > Dean's Letters

Dean's Letters

Dean Laurie H. Glimcher Challenges Grads To Be Agents of Hope

I gave the following address to the Weill Cornell Medical College Class of 2014 during commencement on May 29 at Carnegie Hall.

First of all, I'd like to welcome all the families and friends who have supported our graduates throughout the years and who are here to celebrate with us today. Give yourselves a big round of applause — you've earned it. I want to thank our superb Weill Cornell faculty members who have done such a terrific job of training our physicians, scientists and health professionals and launching them on their careers. Thank you also to our staff for everything they've done to make this day so special for all of us.

Dr. Laurie H. Glimcher addresses the Class of 2014 during Commencement on May 29.
Credit: Amelia Panico

And now, to the graduating class of 2014, my heartiest congratulations — your triumph today is well deserved.

You've spent years of study and hard work getting to this point, and I know that you are extremely well prepared to enter the next phase of your lives. But as you go forth today, always remember that you will forever be a part of the Weill Cornell family. I hope that your experience here in New York or in Qatar will stay with you and shape you as you grow into your roles as clinicians and researchers. And I'd like to leave you with a reminder, as well as a challenge.

Whether your field is clinical care or research, or both, always remember to keep the patient at the center of everything you do. That is our motto here at Weill Cornell and it should be your mantra throughout the rest of your lives. As doctors and physician assistants, never forget that your role and your responsibility is to treat the whole person, who is so much more than just their signs and symptoms. The great physician Sir William Osler put this very clearly when he said, "Ask not what disease the person has, but rather what person the disease has." Technology can be an important resource and it can greatly aid in diagnosis and treatment, but your own senses are the most powerful tools you will ever have. Really listen to your patients, take in what they're saying and observe how they're communicating it. Many times they will tell you what's wrong with them. And they have so much to teach you — much more than you have learned or ever will learn in any classroom.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges to practicing medicine today is the staggering amount of paperwork that can threaten to pull you away from your patients. Don't let the clamor of your too-busy lives drown out the voices of your patients. Don't let the pressure of getting through the day rob you of the time you need to spend with them. Remember this advice: for fast-acting relief, try slowing down.

And when you can't treat your patients' diseases or cure them, be champions for them. Treat them and their loved ones with compassion, honesty and the insight you've gained from your experience. Your patients need you to act as agents of hope as much as they want you to be agents of health.

This reminder to keep the patient at the forefront holds just as true for our researchers and other health professionals as it does for those in clinical care. As biomedical scientists or people working in the health care industry, our ultimate goal is also to be agents of hope: to improve the treatments and care that we can offer our patients. The questions you address in the lab or in health care policy should always have human health and patient wellbeing at their core.

As you know, medicine and biomedical science are evolving at an almost dizzying pace. The technologies that we currently have at our disposal, the entirely new classes of therapies we've developed, the potential of genomics and stem cell science to transform medicine, and our unlimited access to online information—all of these things were unimaginable just a few decades ago. And they lead me to issue a challenge to every one of you.

With change occurring at an exponential rate, I challenge you to be leaders in your field. Become that person who innovates and drives medicine or biomedical science forward and shapes it for the better. Never stop asking questions and looking for answers. And never forget that those answers will often be found in patients. We can't experiment on human beings, but Nature can: it's called disease. And that's why nearly every medical breakthrough has started with an observation of a patient by a curious, committed and compassionate physician. It's no exaggeration to say that the health of generations to come lies not just in your hands, but in your eyes, your ears and your hearts.

For those of you who have just completed training as doctors or physician assistants, you've already acquired many of the skills necessary to becoming effective leaders. You've developed the capacity to work in teams to solve clinical problems, often on the basis of imperfect or limited evidence. You've been taught to treat patients with empathy and care, and you're beginning to see human nature in ways that most people don't have access to. As you continue to gain experience, you'll understand more and more the great paradox of humanity: how extremely resilient and yet how very fragile we all are.

Soon you'll be part of other teams as you move on to clinic and hospital settings. You'll be interacting with nurses, social workers, and other health professionals, and you'll be involved in situations where you'll be the manager as well as the one who's managed. Use your understanding of human nature to become a true leader. Take a bigger role in creating a better health care system for tomorrow.

And to our researchers, continue to think critically and imaginatively. Find creative ways to translate your work to the clinical realm or the health care industry. Be passionate and daring in your experiments, and don't be afraid to innovate. No breakthrough ever came from a coward, or from a committee.

I'd like to end with a brief story about one of the great pioneers of cancer research who embodies many of the themes I've been talking about today. Dr. Janet Rowley may not be a household name. But tens of thousands of people are alive today because of her work and her insight.

She entered the University of Chicago on a scholarship when she was just 15 years old and started medical school when she was 20. In the early 1960s, Dr. Rowley's husband, who was also a medical researcher, was working for the NIH when he was offered a sabbatical at Oxford University. Janet Rowley packed up the couple's four boys, moved the family to England and, with a small NIH grant herself, began studying human chromosomes.

In 1962, the family returned to Chicago and Dr. Rowley convinced the University of Chicago to give her a microscope, a desk and a salary of $5,000 a year so she could continue her research part-time as a hobby. She said she could only work part-time because she had four children.

Janet Rowley's hobby became a passion. Ten years later, she was sitting at her dining room table, studying photographs of chromosomes that she had cut out when she had what she called an "oh, wow moment." She noticed that bits of material on two chromosomes from a patient who had a particular type of leukemia weren't where they were supposed to be; they had traded places. She called that process "genetic translocation."

When she tried to publish her findings, the scientific journals initially sent rejection letters, but she proceeded to find additional examples of genetic translocation linked to cancers. Eventually, it became clear that she had made a major discovery.

Until Janet Rowley's "oh, wow moment," researchers had thought that genetic abnormalities were the result of cancer. Dr. Rowley's work showed that it was the other way around: the abnormalities caused cancer. That revolutionary insight led to the dawn of precision medicine: targeted drug treatments for previously untreatable cancers like CML — chronic myelogenous leukemia. As recently as a decade ago, CML was often a death sentence. Today it can be treated, and even cured, with a lifesaving drug called Gleevec that targets a cancer-specific protein created by that genetic abnormality.

Dr. Rowley died just before Christmas last year at the age of 88 from complications of ovarian cancer. She was still riding her bicycle to work nearly every day until shortly before her death. Just one month before she died, she accepted an award for her research, saying, "Cancer can be cured if we work hard enough."

Think of the changes in science and medicine she saw during her lifetime — and helped to bring about. When change happens at a dizzying pace, it's easy for us to feel lost and adrift. But you will never lose your way if you remember to keep the patient at the center of everything you do. Be the scientific and medical leaders of tomorrow. Follow your passions, be persistent, and always have the courage of your convictions. Never give up, never stop fighting for the good of humanity. Remember, in a good cause, there are no failures — only delayed victory.

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson addressed a graduating class much like yourself with these words: "You are not here merely to prepare to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement."

Congratulations again to all of you in the class of 2014. We are so proud of your accomplishments and are just as excited as you to see what the coming years will bring. This great institution has helped give you a great start. My sincerest wish is that the rest of your journey be filled with happiness, love and success.

Thank you.

Posted May 29, 2014 4:00 PM | Permalink to this post

All Entries

May 29, 2014 - Dean Laurie H. Glimcher Challenges Grads To Be Agents of Hope

May 15, 2014 - Dean's Letter - May 2014

February 13, 2014 - Dean's Letter - February 2014

December 03, 2013 - Dean's Letter - December 2013

September 13, 2013 - Dean's Letter - September 2013

May 31, 2013 - Remarks to the Class of 2013

May 01, 2013 - Dean's Letter - May 2013

February 21, 2013 - Dr. Lewis Cantley Receives Inaugural $3 Million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for Excellence in Cancer Research

February 15, 2013 - Dean's Letter - February 2013

December 21, 2012 - Dean's Letter - December 2012

December 07, 2012 - 2012 State of the Medical College Address

September 19, 2012 - Dean's Letter - Fall 2012

September 13, 2012 - Dr. Lewis C. Cantley to Lead Newly Established Cancer Center

September 11, 2012 - Weill Cornell Medical College to Create Child Care Center for Faculty, Students and Staff

July 25, 2012 - Of Crystal Balls and Agents of Hope