The 70 future scientists seemed to sit up straighter as they listened to the speaker.
“You all have the opportunity to change the very nature of human existence,” MD Anderson President Ronald DePinho, M.D., stressed in his first commencement address to graduates of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS).
GSBS is a long-standing partnership between MD Anderson and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), which jointly awards doctor of philosophy and master of science degrees.
DePinho told the 2012 graduates that his father, a Portuguese immigrant, had “cried when I graduated,” first from Fordham University with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and then when he earned his medical degree in microbiology and immunology from Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
“I applaud your parents and grandparents, your partners and other
family members. Having a wonderfully supportive family means more than
you can fully appreciate right now,” DePinho said.
Yesterday’s student, today’s exceptional mentor
DePinho advised the graduates to “make sure that each and every day you’ll always be a student.”
His counsel was especially appreciated by Joya Chandra, Ph.D., who received the 2012 John P. McGovern Outstanding Teacher Award, recognizing exceptional nurturing of GSBS students.
“To teach is to learn twice over. I’m so fortunate to have had wonderful mentors at MD Anderson … and now I have the privilege of helping train the next generation of bright young scientists,” noted Chandra, associate professor at MD Anderson’s Children’s Cancer Hospital.
She credits working as a summer college student with neuropsychologists in MD Anderson’s Division of Pediatrics with confirming her career choice. After graduating from Louisiana State University, she enrolled in GSBS and became the first graduate student in the lab of David McConkey, Ph.D., now professor in the Department of Urology and recipient of the 2001 McGovern Award.
Chandra obtained her Ph.D. in 1998, then completed postdoctoral fellowships at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and the Mayo Clinic before returning to MD Anderson in 2002 to start a research laboratory.
Illustrating her pride in “seeing my students excel” are GSBS students Christa Manton and Blake Johnson, who respectively have won a Sowell-Huggins Endowed Scholar Award and the Arnold Foundation Graduate Student Fellowship from MD Anderson’s Center for Stem Cell and Developmental Biology.
Johnson, whose research focuses on oxidative stress in leukemic stem cells, wants to be a science educator while Manton’s goal is to have her own research program and continue studies that can be applied to treating brain tumors.
Going for the gold
Another dedicated mentor is Russell Broaddus, M.D., Ph.D., professor in the Department of Pathology, who has advised more than 100 GSBS students, plus many postdoctoral trainees, clinical residents and fellows. He received the 2006 McGovern Award.
Broaddus helped place gold-lined, academic hoods around the necks of the 70 graduates at the commencement. Gold is the traditional color signifying advanced degrees in science. He had warm congratulations for Jessica Bowser, Ph.D., and David Gaytan, M.D., Ph.D., whom he had mentored as they pursued their degrees.
“Both have been extraordinary students, and I feel privileged to be a part of their educational journeys,” Broaddus said.
Bowser, who came from a rural farming community in Kansas, was the first in her family to attend college, while Gaytan immigrated as a child to the United States from Mexico. Bowser remains at MD Anderson for a postdoctoral fellowship in pathology, and Gaytan has gone to Baylor College of Medicine for a residency in internal medicine.
Presidential support makes a difference
After the graduation, DePinho spent extra time with Hoai Nam Nguyen-Jackson, Ph.D., her husband John Jackson, daughters Anya, 7, and twins Ella and Tess, 6.
Nguyen-Jackson had completed her graduate work with support from a 2011 Presidents’ Research Scholarship funded by the presidents of MD Anderson and UTHealth. She won that award for original research conducted in the laboratory of Stephanie Watowich, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Immunology and recipient of the 2010 McGovern Award.
As the father of three young children, DePinho offered this advice to Anya, Ella and Tess: “Always do your best in school and finish your homework.”
Nguyen-Jackson said the Presidents’ Research Scholarship “meant so much since my graduate school experience was challenging due to the births of my three children during that time.”
She now teaches science courses at James Bowie High School in Austin, where she initiated a program for students to conduct research projects that can be continued at The University of Texas at Austin.