On Recent Visit to New York, NIH OxCam Scholars gain Inspiration from Leaders in Bioethics, Biopharmaceuticals and Science

It has become an annual September experience for Scholars in the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program to travel to New York City to attend several events centered on the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation’s Lasker Awards. For the handful of selected scholars in advanced stages of completing their Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D., the purpose of these events was to provide opportunities for expanded learning, building presentation skills, networking, and gaining sage advice from the Lasker winners themselves as they reflected upon their careers in scientific discovery.

Arriving in New York on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 16th, the scholars were the guest of Dr. Arthur Caplan, the Drs. William F. and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor of Bioethics and the founding director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center’s Department of Population Health. Dr. Caplan, a renowned bioethicist, met with the students and provided a talk entitled “The Ethical Challenges of Compassionate Use and Expanded Access.” Dr. Caplan shared stories and opinions about a variety of medical ethics topics ranging from informed consent to distribution of pharmaceuticals before they have completed the FDA approval process in order to treat patients with no other treatment options.  An attending scholar noted that Dr. Caplan’s honesty and openness led to very interesting conversations about these extremely important topics, some of which they had not before considered.

On Thursday morning, the group visited the campus of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals in Tarrytown New York. The day began with a meeting and discussion with Dr. George Yancopoulos, M.D., Ph.D., Founding Scientist, President, and Chief Scientific Officer of Regeneron, followed by a tour of the campus, presentations made by Regeneron scientists and presentations made by the Scholars. NIH Oxford Scholar, Angela Ianni, who is pursuing her M.D./Ph.D., commented, “the visit to Regeneron was a wonderful opportunity to learn about career paths for physician scientists other than the traditional academic track.  I was especially impressed with the way that Regeneron prioritizes technology development first (e.g. VelociGene, VelociMouse, and a completely automated Genetics Center), knowing that a groundbreaking technology will eventually lead to the discovery of many treatments.  As a neuroscientist, this is especially relevant in light of the NIH’s recent BRAIN initiative to fund the development of innovative neurotechnologies to spur advances in the field of mental health.”  NIH Oxford Scholar/Churchill Fellow (pursuing M.D./Ph.D.), Michael Gormally noted that “Touring Regeneron’s headquarters was a fantastic opportunity to get a sense for how fast the field of immunology is revolutionising treatment of a vast array of human disease. Dr. Yancopoulos is a particular inspiration of mine because he’s a prime example of the value in doing great research and sticking to your convictions while the field catches up to you. For someone like me, who wants to be a part of drug discovery, it was very motivating.” Further, NIH Cambridge Scholar (pursuing M.D./Ph.D.) Josh Bernstock commented that the time spent at Regeneron was formative for him, “they truly embody the essence of translational science/medicine.”

Later in the evening, the scholars attended a cocktail reception held in their honor at the home of an Alliance board member. Guests included exceptional leaders in biomedical research, business, publishing, academia, New York area alumni of the program, and a Pulitzer Prize winning author. This provided an excellent opportunity to network and gain career advice as well as for the scholars to share the nature of their research and practice their “elevator speech.”

On Friday morning, September 18th, the scholars attended the Breakfast at Lasker event, a private breakfast with the winners of the 2015 Lasker Awards (learn more about the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation and this year’s winners by visiting www.laskerfoundation.org). During the breakfast, each scholar had the opportunity to ask the winners questions. A vast range of questions was put forth, including: What helped you stay creative? What was the lowest point of your career? When did you know that you made a groundbreaking discovery? How did you choose a mentor? Sitting down with Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award winner Evelyn Witkin was, for the scholars, an unparalleled experience. Michael Gormally remarked “I had long drawn inspiration from Evelyn Witkin. In the 1940s she was the first to realize that DNA can and must repair itself to maintain the integrity of the genome. Her discoveries set off a paradigm shift in medicine and how we think about the environmental factors of human disease. A random mutation in this repair machinery brought on by UV-damage is the cause of melanoma, which kills 10,000 Americans annually. I was able to solicit her advice on how to lead a passionate career, while also preserving a healthy balance to raise a family. At the beginning of my career, I found her distinguished perspective invaluable.” Further, Angela Ianni remarked: “The highlight of the trip for me was the Breakfast at Lasker.  The Lasker Award winners were truly inspiring and gave very insightful answers to our questions about a variety of topics that were really getting at a bigger question that no one explicitly asked – How can we be more like them?  I came away from that experience with a renewed excitement about not only my research and career path, but about the breakthroughs and new treatments that the field as a whole will come up with in my lifetime.”

Perhaps one of the most moving statements of the morning came from Joanne Liu, International President of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), who represented the organization as the winner of the 2015 Lasker~Bloomberg Public Service Award, when she implored that scholars saying, “We need you to find out. We need you to learn more about Ebola.” The Lasker winners also shared these pearls of wisdom with the scholars:

  • Welcome the difficulties
  • Be persistent – don’t get stuck
  • If you believe that what you are doing is right, keep doing it
  • A mentor is someone who keeps believing in you even when you don’t
  • Sometimes the planets line up
  • Share your data and the work you are doing
  • Don’t be part of the herd
  • Go beyond the boundaries of your immediate interest
  • Sometimes you have to take time for yourself and get out of the lab
  • Make time to educate the public
  • Practice your communication skills
  • Share your science with non-scientists and do so with respect

The afternoon reception and Lasker Awards Luncheon rounded out the visit. The Scholars returned to the NIH energized, renewed, and ready to get back to their research. These experiences could not have been possible without the generosity of Dr. Arthur Caplan and NYU Langone, Dr. George Yancopoulos and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Dr. Claire Pomeroy and Mr. Michael Overlock of the Lasker Foundation and Board of Directors, and supporters of the International Biomedical Research Alliance.