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“Applying Science to the Common Purposes of Life”

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Graduating Class Awards Ceremony
Albany Medical College
Albany, New York

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Good afternoon.  I offer my congratulations to the award winners, and to all of you who are graduating.

Each of you should be commended for taking on the challenge of medical school, and successfully completing a very rigorous program. Medicine combines the deep knowledge of leading-edge scientific topics with the direct application of that knowledge in immediate, specific, and sometimes urgent situations.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Albany Medical College actually share common values and goals. The mission of Rensselaer is applying “science to the common purposes of life.” Certainly, what you have chosen to do in your careers–taking care of patients, improving lives, and saving lives—fits this description perfectly.  Albany Medical College has trained you to do this.

This commonality also is reflected in the formal collaboration between our institutions in a research alliance -- aimed at providing a resource for sharing discoveries, identifying opportunities, developing joint proposals for funding, and translating results from “the bench to the bedside”. It is personalized through your commencement speaker, Dr. Gary Gottlieb, who, I am proud to say, is a Rensselaer-Albany Medical College combined degree graduate. That degree—which enables exemplary individuals to complete requirements for both the B.S. and M.D. degrees in an accelerated time frame—dates back to 1964, and Rensselaer and the Albany Medical College were early pioneers in initiating such a degree program.

It is no secret that the world of medicine is undergoing tremendous ferment today—and I would expect that it will continue to present challenges and opportunities to you throughout your careers. Medicine is at the center of the storm of economic and social concerns, and will bring major changes.

Emerging research and startling new technologies will bring disruptive change, even turbulence, to your careers. Given the boom in scientific knowledge, the half-life of what you have learned here will be shorter than that of the generation before you.  

Let me illustrate why with a true-life story I read recently. In October 2004 in Afghanistan, a mortar exploded, and a US Marine Corporal (Isaias Hernandez) was nearly ripped apart by shrapnel, which tore away seventy percent of the muscle in his right thigh, and fractured his femur. Corporal Hernandez endured four years of surgeries and physical therapy—to little affect; until he met a doctor (Stephen Badylak) of the McGowan Institute of Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, who cut open (once again) the Corporal’s thigh, and applied what is known as the extracellular matrix—derived from pig bladders.

The extracellular matrix, as you probably know, fills the space around the body’s cells. It contains hormones, structural proteins, and other molecules that maintain cell function and health, mediate inter-cellular communication, and, importantly, guide tissue growth. Miraculously, after about six weeks, the implanted gel mixture spurred the growth of muscle tissue, tendons, and vasculature, and, with it, restored physical strength to the marine’s thigh.

Dr. Badylak does not really know how the extracellular matrix works. But, what is known is this: it becomes part of the existing tissue, it draws stem cells to the implant location, it changes the body’s immune response from rejection to reconstruction. By recruiting the body’s own stem cells and putting them to work, the extracellular matrix obviates the need for controversial and difficult stem cell implants. Think of it as a kind of biological catalyst. The work I have described is part of a ($70 million) government-supported regenerative medicine research program. 

This is the kind of work that researchers at Rensselaer are engaged in—deriving breakthroughs in the use of adult stem cells, understanding the role of the extracellular matrix in cell signaling and tissue regeneration, developing enzyme-based coatings that kill MRSA on contact, bioengineering synthetic heparin, understanding how to mitigate the role of both H and N proteins in flu virus transmission, developing intelligent robots, and much more.

We already are seeing how genomics, artificial organs, embedded sensors, and expert systems will transform medical care and treatment. Undoubtedly, there will be even greater catalysts for change that will surprise you.

This means that you will be pressed, even as you practice your profession, to renew your knowledge at an unprecedented rate. More and more, you will need to collaborate effectively and deeply with colleagues in other medical specialties, and in the broader scientific community. Team medicine already is a best practice for procedures in medicine, and this is being supported by technologies that encourage and facilitate information sharing.

Yours may be the first generation of doctors to include an entity with artificial intelligence on the team. IBM’s Watson, the computer that won Jeopardy!, was designed (by a Rensselaer graduate, Dr. David Ferrucci and colleagues) with you in mind. IBM has sent Watson to “medical school” (at the Cleveland Clinic) to learn all there is to know with respect to existing medical knowledge, and to use that knowledge to derive data-driven answers to numerous medical questions. It may seem like science fiction, but, before too long, you may consult as regularly with such a computer as having normal conversations with colleagues.

In a way, your generation will be privileged by having this approach to medicine. Yours will be careers with dynamic possibilities for continual growth and new opportunities. You will maintain relationships from every stage of your professional lives, thanks in part to the availability of social networks and your facility with their use. You never will be alone, without advice and resources, and that has the potential for far-reaching impact.

In the end, these technologies will never eliminate the essential role in medicine of the human touch and human compassion and human intelligence. Your work requires a balance of confidence and humility—the confidence to make life-altering decisions, and the humility to understand what it means—literally—to hold someone’s life in your hands.

To be sure, things will not always go smoothly for you. You will face your share of frustrations, stressful moments, difficult choices, and yes, losses and defeats.

However, you are well prepared to enter this new era of medicine—with the marriage of basic medical care to new scientific discoveries and technological innovations—that offer hope for transformative therapies, yet lower costs. 

As such, it promises extraordinary benefits to patients, intellectual treasures for you, and a renewed role for you in creating a society that applies the best that science has to offer to achieve the common—and most vital—purposes of life.

Rensselaer has educated many students, through the years, who have gone on to become great physicians, physician-researchers and physician-entrepreneurs. So, as you step into the next phase of your lives, I have five wishes for you:

First, that you be in the right place at the right time. You have prepared yourselves for opportunities to do work that matters. You save lives. I hope that you will get many chances to heal and to share your great gifts. Further, when the chance to do something special arrives, I hope you see it for what it is, and you have the courage to seize the opportunity.

Second, that you challenge, renew, and transform yourselves through the years, from today, to the day you end your careers. With medicine, you never finish; you never arrive at the destination. There always is more to do and to learn.  You may carry an iPad instead of a clipboard, but your tools and treatments always must be up-to-date, and you always must have the facility to use them effectively and compassionately. This will happen only if it is a priority in your busy lives.

Third, that you use your time wisely. None of us gets more than twenty-four hours in a day, but there are ways to squeeze more value out of your minutes. Understand your priorities; be careful of distractions, which will grow in number and will be ever more enticing.

Fourth, that you always take joy in your work, even on those days when nothing seems to go right. You have acknowledged your talent and nurtured it, and putting it into practice is what you were made for. You are and will be doing important work. Remember this always and find the joy.

Fifth, that you achieve success on your own terms. Whether you find yourselves—in the end—in practice, in research, or in administration, I hope that you achieve—in fact, exceed—your goals in every way.

Once again, I congratulate you for your achievements—especially those receiving recognition today. 

Thank you for including me in your special celebration this afternoon, and thank you for honoring me in this way.

I wish you Godspeed.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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