Office of the President


Weill Cornell Commencement address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for delivery
June 3, 2010

Good afternoon and welcome. I offer my congratulations to the graduates of the Weill Cornell Medical College, the Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar, and the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences.

You are earning degrees from one of the most distinguished medical and graduate institutions in the world - a place of high expectations, rigorous requirements, and unswerving commitment to excellence in education, research, patient care, and public engagement. You've met, and often exceeded, the aspirations we had for you when you began your educational journeys at Weill Cornell, and today I join with the faculty and staff, the Board of Overseers, the Board of Trustees, and your families and friends in recognizing you for the achievements, drive, and dedication that led to this day.

Graduating today from the Weill Cornell Medical College here in New York City are 45 women and 53 men who came to us from some 53 undergraduate institutions. Also with us are 17 individuals - 11 men and 6 women - who have earned M.D. degrees from the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar and who were also honored in ceremonies in Doha last month. Thirteen of today's graduates have completed the Tri-Institutional M.D./Ph.D. program, sponsored jointly by Weill Cornell, Rockefeller University, and the Sloan-Kettering Institute. Many have completed honors theses or authored research papers. They have demonstrated strong international and service interests, participating in Weill Cornell-sponsored medical educational experiences around the world - from Albania to Tanzania - while also devoting their energy and talents to community service projects and holding leadership positions in national organizations, student government and other campus groups. The new M.D.s will go on to residency training or research opportunities in 21 different specialties at some of the most distinguished institutions in the U.S. and also at the Hamad Medical Center in Qatar.

Earning degrees from the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences are 55 Ph.D. students and 49 Master of Science students. During their time at Weill Cornell they have published research papers in distinguished biomedical journals, and presented their research at national meetings and at the Weill Cornell Graduate School Vincent du Vigneaud Research Symposium. In addition, they have combined scientific scholarship with involvement in community education and outreach, and they will pursue careers in biomedical research, biotechnology, patent law, medical writing, technology transfer and science business consulting.

Graduates of all three of our Weill Cornell schools: We are proud of you and your achievements, and we wish you well on the journey ahead.

You are entering medicine and biomedical research at a time of great scientific and medical opportunity - reaping the benefits of our expanding awareness of the genetic and molecular basis of health and disease and the development and application of advanced diagnostic and therapeutic technologies. It is also a time of increased attention to health care accessibility, quality and safety. I know that you will bring to your new roles as physicians and biomedical scientists not only great knowledge and skill, but also the dedication and commitment to help patients and advance biomedical knowledge in unprecedented ways. And I hope you'll also think and act more broadly as we grapple, as a nation and a planet, with larger issues facing human health and wellbeing.

A first area of concern is national health care policy. Last year at these commencement exercises, I spoke of the urgent need for national health care reform and the role I hoped that our new graduates would play in national policy discussions-as physicians, biomedical researchers and informed citizens. The health care bill that was signed into law this spring is a strong first step toward ensuring that all Americans have access to the health care they need at a price they can afford. Of course, not all believe that the bill was all it could have been, but I think it's a good and critical step forward.

The bill's passage, however, is only the first step in making America's health care as good as its doctors and biomedical researchers. There is still much to be done to improve patient safety, the quality of care, the coordination and integration of services, and to lower the cost. Indeed this was the topic of an international conference on health care delivery held here in New York City last month, with sponsorship from Weill Cornell, Cornell's ILR School, our Clinical and Translational Science Center (CTSC) and others. As our health care system continues to evolve, Weill Cornell Medical College and its faculty, staff, students and alumni - including those earning degrees today - need to continue to be in the forefront of public policy debate and decision-making, welcoming participation from nurses, pharmacists, nursing assistants, physician assistants, laboratory professionals, insurance industry representatives, hospital administrators, biopharma executives, and others, while applying the same high level of scientific and clinical knowledge and ethical perspective that we bring to our daily work in medicine and biomedical research to the broader public policy sphere.

A second area of special interest and concern, where both M.D. and graduate degree candidates have important roles, is translational medicine - which moves biomedical research from the laboratory to the patient, from the bench to the bedside, to the community and back again in a dynamic, continuous process. Our Clinical and Translational Science Center, funded in 2007 with a $49 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was established to foster that process. Since its inception, it has brought together the existing medical and biomedical resources on the East Side to form "a unique and cohesive biomedical complex designed to break down institutional silos and barriers separating scientific disciplines in order to accelerate the clinical application of basic science discoveries."

Both the potential and the need for the CTSC are great. Despite the substantial progress that has been made in biomedical research over the past few decades, there is an urgent need to translate that knowledge into strategies that benefit patients and communities. Sharon Begley and Mary Carmichael, in a recent Newsweek cover story (May 24 and 31), put the dilemma starkly. Noting that the budget for NIH had doubled between 1998 and 2003 and now stands at $31 billion, they wrote, "There is very little downside for a president or Congress, in appeasing patient-advocacy groups as well as voters by supporting biomedical research. But … the only criterion that matters to patients and taxpayers - [is] not how many interesting discoveries about cells or genes or synapses have been made, but how many treatments for disease the money has bought … "

And, indeed, accelerating progress in translational medicine is among the priorities of the new director of the NIH, Francis Collins. Testifying before the Senate last month on NIH's FY 2011 budget requests, Dr. Collins noted: "In the past, some have complained that NIH has been too slow to convert fundamental observations into better ways to diagnose, treat, and prevent disease. Although some of that criticism may have been deserved, most of the delay has stemmed from the lack of good ideas about how to traverse the long and winding road from molecular insight to therapeutic benefit. That is now changing. For many disorders, there are new opportunities for NIH to shorten and straighten the pathway from discovery to health."

Dr. Collins cited the NIH Clinical and Translational Sciences Award program, which funded the Weill Cornell CTSC, as one of the tools NIH is using to draw together interdisciplinary clinical research teams "to work in unprecedented ways to develop and deliver tangible health benefits."

Only a small fraction of today's graduates have set out to become biomedical researchers through participation in the notoriously rigorous M.D./Ph.D. program. But many of you - both M.D. and graduate degree candidates - have carried out research during your time at Cornell in the laboratory or clinical setting. I hope that many of you will continue to carry out research and also collaborate with others in order to bring the perspectives of both the clinical researcher and the biomedical scientist to the prevention of disease and the improvement of clinical care. And I hope that all of you - in your roles as concerned citizens, as well as physicians and biomedical researchers - will bring your expertise to bear on the other issues, from patent and licensing to the lack of venture capital that creates the so-called "valley of death" between the scientific discovery and its availability in the pharmaceutical and medical device market and, in turn, at the patient's bedside.

There is a third area of professional engagement that many of you have experienced during your time at Weill Cornell and that I hope many of you will carry forward: an involvement in global health. This has been a long-standing focus of the Weill Cornell Medical College, and one that has continued to gain prominence in recent years, as we've developed new programs in Qatar, Tanzania and elsewhere.

Especially this year, we have been concerned about the situation in Haiti, where Cornell has had a major presence for almost 30 years through the GHESKIO clinic, which provides clinical service, research and training to treat and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and related diseases. Founded by one of your predecessors, Dr. Jean William (Bill) Pape, M.D. '75, and now Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell, GHESKIO was hard hit by the January 2010 earthquake. Many of us, both at Weill Cornell and at Cornell in Ithaca, have reached out to support relief efforts in Haiti, and rebuilding the GHESKIO clinic has been a special focus of many of our activities.

I am pleased to note that, despite damage to its facilities, GHESKIO has worked with U.S. medical and surgical teams to treat those injured in the quake and to provide basic public health and medical services to the thousands of refugees who camped on its grounds, while also maintaining its clinical care, research and education for HIV/AIDS and related diseases. By early last month 7,000 refugees in the GHESKIO tent city had been moved to higher ground with good water, sanitation, security, and a school for children ages 6-12. The clinic is continuing to care for its HIV/AIDS patients, and it has expanded its efforts to diagnose and treat tuberculosis, whose incidence in Port-au-Prince has doubled since the earthquake.

In recognition of its work and to support future efforts, GHESKIO recently earned the 2010 Gates Award for Global Health, which includes $1 million to support the work of the clinic, and Dr. Pape was further honored by the Mérieux Foundation with its 2010 Christophe Mérieux Prize, worth 500,000 Euros, given for research on infectious diseases in developing countries.

Whether your journey from Weill Cornell leads you to clinical practice, a biomedical research laboratory, a public health career, or one of the other options that you've chosen to pursue, I hope you will continue to be involved in the larger issues of health care both in the U.S. and globally.

With those needs and opportunities in mind, I give our graduates this charge to take with you today:

M.D. students: I know you will use what you've learned to help your individual patients. Your power to diagnose, treat, and prevent is vast, and you will be able to help patients as never before. But also think more broadly about how your efforts could provide better health to more people in more places at lower cost - at home and abroad.

Master of Science and Ph.D. students: I know you will use your skills in inquiry to ask - and answer - scientific questions. You have the potential to contribute to the advancement of medical and biomedical knowledge with a depth and precision never before possible. But think beyond the parameters of your current research project to offer your perspective in areas where science, public health and research policy intersect.

To all the graduates: Think creatively about how your skills can be used, not in isolation but in collaborative, cross-disciplinary teams to bring medical advances from bench to bedside to community and back again. We look to you, who have accomplished so much during your years at the medical college and graduate school, to use your energy, innovation, knowledge, and compassion to help provide better care at lower cost to those who need it - in the U.S. and beyond.

On behalf of Cornell University and the faculty and staff members who have been partners in your efforts over these past few years, congratulations on your achievements. We are enormously proud of what you've accomplished, and we are counting on your leadership in the years ahead.