A record number of students graduated this year with doctoral degrees in cancer biology from the Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSK) — the educational division of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK). There were 17 graduates receiving their degrees at the 44th annual Academic Convocation and Commencement, held at the Zuckerman Research Center auditorium on May 17, 2023.
In addition, GSK honored the first class of scholars to earn a Master of Science in clinical and translational cancer research. Nine graduates received degrees through this innovative new program, which was created to train MSK physicians to become independent clinical investigators. The event also honored 36 students graduating from the Sloan Kettering Division of the Weill Cornell Medicine Graduate School of Medical Sciences.
The ceremony also recognized promising trainees and distinguished scientists and doctors from MSK and beyond with a number of awards and fellowships.
This year’s honorary degree recipient and commencement speaker was Craig B. Thompson, MD, MSK’s former President and CEO. Dr. Thompson stepped down from that role in September 2022 but continues to lead a lab in the Cancer Biology and Genetics Program of the Sloan Kettering Institute (SKI). He was recognized for his many contributions to MSK and to the larger scientific and cancer community.
In his first convocation address at MSK, new President and CEO Selwyn M. Vickers, MD, FACS, highlighted several advances made in MSK labs over the past year.
“MSK took vital steps over the last year to diversify the people it trains and educates, and the leaders who help steer the institution,” he added. “Those efforts were matched by new community outreach programs and efforts to broaden our impact in health equity and diversity in multiple areas — in large part because we want to see all people have a chance at the best training and the best treatment.”
Awarding Promising Trainees and Leading Scientists and Doctors
GSK Dean Michael Overholtzer, PhD, presented awards to several graduate students doing their research in MSK labs. The students represented GSK as well as the Tri-Institutional MD-PhD Program of MSK, Weill Cornell, and The Rockefeller University.
Ushma Neill, PhD, Vice President for Scientific Education and Training, presented awards to several postdoctoral research fellows. She also recognized the recipients of Marie-Josée Kravis Women in Science Endeavor (WiSE) fellowships, which support women in science. In addition she honored the winners of the Maximizing Excellence in Research, Innovation, and Technology (MERIT) fellowships, which fund the research of young investigators from historically underrepresented groups.
Joan Massagué, PhD, MSK Chief Scientific Officer, SKI Director, and GSK Provost announced that Yael David, PhD, an Assistant Member in SKI’s Chemical Biology Program, had received the Louise and Allston Boyer Young Investigator Award for Basic Research.
Clinical research was also celebrated. MSK’s Chief Physician Executive, Lisa DeAngelis, MD, presented awards to several recipients, including Martin Weiser, MD, winner of this year’s Willet F. Whitmore Award for Clinical Excellence.
Dr. Weiser is a surgical oncologist and MSK’s Vice Chair for Faculty Affairs in the Department of Surgery. He was recognized for his expertise in treating cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, often using minimally invasive surgery techniques, as well as for his achievements in both clinical and lab-based research.
“Dr. Weiser is an exceptional colleague who collaborates across boundaries and represents MSK and the core values of our profession on the national and international stage,” Dr. DeAngelis said. “He is thoughtful, caring, generous, funny, humble, and deeply appreciated by all who have the privilege of working with him. He truly represents the very best of MSK.”
‘It Has Never Been More Clear that Science Matters’
Dr. Thompson was presented with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Biomedical Science. Alan Schnitzer, Chair of GSK, joined Dr. Vickers to read the medal citation and present Dr. Thompson with his honorary degree for his distinguished career.
Dr. Thompson has made important contributions in many areas of biomedical science, including cell death, cell metabolism, and immunology. He has been a GSK faculty member since joining MSK in 2010. As the leader of MSK for 12 years, he helped to revolutionize the clinical practice of oncology for outpatients by expanding MSK’s regional network of facilities. He also has helped to mentor the next generation of cancer scientists and has served as a community leader in the areas of business, philanthropy, education, and many others.
His message to the graduates stressed the important of collaboration. “During your thesis projects, you learned that no one succeeds alone, and you learned to accept help from others, said Dr. Thompson. “Those are valuable lessons that will help shape your future as you move forward in science.”
Dr. Thompson shared some mishaps from his early career as a scientist, drawing good-natured laughs from the crowd. Then he circled back to unique challenges faced by the class of 2023, who had to conduct their thesis research during a global pandemic. “As we emerge from the pandemic, it has never been more clear that science matters,” Dr. Thompson said.
Honoring the Next Generation of Scientists
In his address to the graduates, Dr. Overholtzer said “While today we take a few brief moments to celebrate your successes, the achievements that you have made will impact you for a lifetime. And the new knowledge that you have uncovered really is a timeless gift to science and to all of humanity.”
This year’s student speaker was GSK graduate Paige Arnold, who conducted her PhD research in the lab of cell biologist Lydia Finley. “The privilege of being students at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center meant that we were constantly inspired by research carried out by the world-renowned scientists here,” Dr. Arnold said.
Recognizing Important Accomplishments
During the ceremony, awards were presented to other investigators within the MSK community:
- Cheryl Mai, a graduate student in the lab of Alexander Rudensky, PhD, received the Dorris J. Hutchison Graduate Fellowship.
- Abigail Xie, a graduate student in the lab of Lydia Finley, PhD, received a Barbara and Stephen Friedman Graduate Fellowship.
- Dingyu Liu, a graduate student in the lab of Danwei Huangfu, PhD, received the Bruce Charles Forbes Graduate Fellowship.
- Gayathri Shibu, a graduate student in the lab of Chrysothemis Brown, MBBS, PhD, and Yanan Ma, PhD, a research scholar in the lab of Philipp Niethammer, PhD, received Kravis WiSE fellowships.
- Mijin Kim, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate in the lab of Dan Heller, PhD, and Seungjae Lee, PhD, a research scholar in the lab of Eric Lai, PhD, received Postdoctoral Research Awards.
- Ann Kabuki Baako, a graduate student in the labs of Thomas Vierbuchen, PhD, and Justin Parry, PhD, and Jenny Paredes Sanchez, PhD, a research scholar in the lab of Marcel van den Brink, MD, PhD, received MERIT Awards. Leah Morales, a graduate student in the lab of Quaid Morris, PhD, received the MERIT Sawyers Award.
- Timour Baslan, PhD, a fellow in the lab of Scott Lowe, PhD, received the Tri-Institutional Breakout Prize for Junior Investigators.
- Yael David, PhD, an Assistant Member in SKI’s Chemical Biology Program, received the Louise and Allston Boyer Young Investigator Award for Basic Research.
- Adrienne Boire, MD, PhD, a neuro-oncologist and neurologist who also leads a lab in the Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program, received the Louise and Allston Boyer Young Investigator Award for Clinical Research.
- Martin Weiser, MD, a surgical oncologist, lab investigator, and MSK’s Vice Chair for Faculty Affairs in the Department of Surgery, received the Willet F. Whitmore Award for Clinical Excellence.
The 2023 honorees from outside MSK were:
- Vishva Dixit, MD, Vice President of Early Discovery Research and a Senior Fellow in Physiological Chemistry at Genentech, received the Katharine Berkan Judd Award.
- Alan Ashworth, PhD, FRS, the President of the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California San Francisco and Sr. Vice President for Cancer Services there, received the C. Chester Stock Award Lectureship.
- Stuart Orkin, MD, the David G. Nathan Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at Boston Children’s Hospital, received the Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering Prize.