Please note: Speeches appear in the language in which they were delivered.
Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, members of the faculty and staff, distinguished guests, graduates, ladies and gentlemen. I’m honored to receive an honorary Doctor of Sciences degree from one of the great universities of Canada and to have the opportunity to address your graduating class on this very special day.
Graduates, since this is your last lecture at the University of Ottawa, I’ve decided to share with you some of the most important lessons that I’ve learned throughout my professional career. The good news is that there’ll be no exam at the end of the lecture. Your grade will be determined much later by you and it will be based on how well you understand and utilize these lessons in your own lives.
Let’s start with the present. Although this is my first visit here, my reading of the University of Ottawa experience is that is a nurturing environment where students learn how to learn, learn how to lead and learn how to recognize the things that are important in life. So, the first lesson I want to convey to you is to never forget the values you’ve learned here and the relationships you’ve made, for they will serve as your compass to guide you as you go forward.
As I reflected on the successes and failures that I’ve had in my own professional career, I realized that whatever accomplishments I have achieved would have been almost inconceivable when I was where you are in your careers. By the time I’d finished my second year of college, I had amassed an abysmal academic record, including a C in my first semester of Organic Chemistry. This didn’t bode well for someone who had naively assumed since high school that he would eventually become a professor of organic chemistry. In retrospect, a C wasn’t that bad of a grade considering that I didn’t open the book a single time during that semester. Indeed, by the time I had decided to get serious about my studies, I had dug quite a hole for myself. So, from that point on, I not only had to do well in all my courses, I had to teach myself all the things I had failed to learn during those first couple of years. And learn I did, first slowly and painfully, but eventually the pieces started to come together. One of my profs took a chance and let me do undergraduate research under his direction and, to the surprise of almost everyone, I ended up publishing two papers in scientific journals as an undergraduate.
My recovery, however, was not as miraculous as I had hoped. I wasn’t able to get into any top tier graduate programs. As a consequence, I had to stay on at CUNY for graduate school. I worked very hard and did well enough to land a first-rate postdoctoral position at the Ohio State University. When I arrived there, however, I quickly realized that I was playing in a different league. There were many outstanding people from all over the world and I knew that I was going to have to work even harder if I was to be competitive. I did and two years later managed to land one of only six assistant professor positions in the U.S. in organic chemistry available that year at PhD granting institutions. At that time, I had accomplished something that would have been unimaginable just a few years before — I had become an assistant professor of chemistry at Emory University. Clearly, by believing in myself and working hard, I had finally shed most of the baggage from my early academic years. So, the lesson here is not to let others define your potential, for only you can determine what you’re capable of achieving.
The last story I want to tell you about began in the late 1980s when I had just gone through my first professional mid-life crisis. I wanted my research to make a positive difference in the health of the public and so, I made the radical decision to shift the focus of my then very successful basic research program to drug discovery and development, so that I could address the HIV/AIDS pandemic. My colleagues advised me that this was an ill-conceived strategy since, in taking this approach, my competition would change from small academic research labs like mine to pharmaceutical research labs that had armies of well-trained scientists and huge amounts of funding and infrastructure. Add on top of this that the last biology course of any kind that I had taken was in 10th grade and most people concluded that my likelihood for success was pretty low.
On the other hand, at that time, millions of people were dying because of their HIV infections and those armies of pharmaceutical scientists hadn’t had much success in quelling the pandemic. I thought this was the case, at least in part, because they were using established strategies that might not work against this new kind of virus that was disabling our immune systems. As a novice to the area, I didn’t suffer from any preconceived notions. And so, with the help of several excellent colleagues, we set out to make and evaluate a variety of new compounds we had designed for their potential as anti-HIV agents. In less than a year we had developed an extremely efficient approach for preparing the most promising of these novel nucleoside analogs, two of which eventually received FDA approval for treating HIV infections. One of them, Epivir, also became the first compound approved by the FDA for treating hepatitis B infections. The other, Emtriva, is a component of Atripla, the fixed dose, triple combination that revolutionized HIV therapy by allowing patients to take one pill, once a day. In fact, Emory’s Office of Technology Transfer estimates that greater than 94% of all patients taking HIV therapeutics in the U.S. have taken one of the drugs discovered in my laboratory.
So, there are two lessons here. First, on occasion, being a novice in a field can be an advantage, because you’re not encumbered by old dogmas. Second, and more importantly, we can’t afford to sit and wait for others to change the world — we have to do it ourselves. The good news is that we all have the capacity to make the world a better place. All that is required is that we be proactive and persistent on an issue or cause that we’re passionate about. So, this is my challenge to all of you here today. Examine your own lives, identify a problem compatible with your skills and pursue it. If it’s something you’re passionate about and you’re willing to persevere, I guarantee you that you’ll find a way of doing it well. Remember, however, that this is marathon, not a sprint. So, don’t ever lose sight of your goals and your dreams. And, if at some points in your life you find yourself wavering, think back to your time at the University of Ottawa and all the values and knowledge you learned here, and reset your compass.