Cedars-Sinai Graduation Brings Pride, Reflection

Class speaker Jessica Beach, PhD, receives her diploma, flanked by Thomas M. Priselac, Cedars-Sinai president and CEO, (left) and Shlomo Melmed, MD, senior vice president of Academic Affairs and dean of the medical faculty.

The third commencement of the Cedars-Sinai Graduate Program in Biomedical Science and Translational Medicine was an occasion for reveling in achievement — and reflecting on the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for the five new PhDs. The June 10 event also marked the inaugural awarding of the PRISM prize to faculty for outstanding scientific breakthroughs.

Pride was on display from the first strains of "Pomp and Circumstance." Resplendent in academic finery, Cedars-Sinai institutional leaders, 75 faculty members and students marched into Harvey Morse Auditorium before an audience of nearly 200, many of them snapping photos with cellphones and cameras.

That spirit carried into the address by the class speaker. "I am Doctor Jessica Beach, a proud member of the Cedars-Sinai Class of 2015," she announced to enthusiastic applause.

The event featured reminders of the responsibility that comes with accomplishment. "It is not what we are now that truly matters," Beach said. "It is not what is within that we celebrate. Rather, we celebrate what our effect will be downstream. Today is the beginning of our opportunity as translational researchers to change the future."

In his commencement address, Jonathan Thomas, PhD, JD, chair of the Governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), offered a cautionary tale of his youthful arrogance and the insightful lessons he learned from it.

As a Yale University senior who had completed a double major in biology and history and played varsity tennis, "I thought I was pretty hot stuff," he said. Figuring he had a good shot at winning a Rhodes Scholarship in 1975, he explained, he didn't bother to research how interviews were conducted for the prestigious award. That was a big mistake. Confronted with unconventional questions — such as "How do you think Kojak would have fared as sheriff of Dodge City?" — Thomas said he stumbled during his interview and lost the scholarship to Ash Carter, now U.S. secretary of defense. The lesson? "Never go into anything you care about unprepared," he said.

In his commencement address, Jonathan Thomas, PhD, JD, chair of the Governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, spoke of lessons he learned from youthful arrogance.

Also during his address, Thomas cited the "outstanding work" of Cedars-Sinai researchers that has been funded by the CIRM, which partners with academia and industry to develop promising stem cell technologies. In an interview after the ceremony, he said Cedars-Sinai is "very important" to the institute's efforts and fields an "absolutely first-rate team."

In his dean's address, Shlomo Melmed, MD, professor of Medicine, senior vice president of Academic Affairs, dean of the medical faculty and Helene A. and Philip E. Hixon Distinguished Chair in Investigative Medicine, praised Thomas for "successfully establishing California as the global center for disease-oriented stem cell research." He also discussed the need for scientific teamwork in an era of big data, leading to the creation of an "atmosphere of genius" by empowering productivity and innovation.

In welcoming remarks, Thomas M. Priselac, Cedars-Sinai's president and CEO, told the graduates: "You are vital because you subscribe to the belief that the highest calling of biomedical science lies in its translation; that laboratory discoveries only acquire genuine meaning when they are successfully deployed to heal the human body." He also praised their tenacity in following "a road less traveled, one where the coin of the realm is precision and endurance."

The graduates this year are Jessica Beach, PhD; Felix Alonso-Valenteen, PhD; Candy Bedoya, PhD; I-Farn Lei, PhD; and Sara Pollan, PhD. Their research interests include chemotherapy resistance, nanoparticle medicine, cardiovascular disease, neuroscience and regenerative medicine.

Two Cedars-Sinai faculty members received prestigious awards: Stanley C. Jordan, MD, and Kathrin Michelsen, PhD.

Jordan, professor of Medicine and Pediatrics and director of Kidney Transplantation and Transplant Immunology, received the Prize for Research in Scientific Medicine, or PRISM prize, for his major contributions to the treatment and care of organ transplant patients. The annual prize, which carries a $10,000 award, honors a scientific breakthrough or critical medical insight by a Cedars-Sinai faculty member within the preceding five years.

The graduates (front row, from left): Felix Alonso-Valenteen, PhD, Jessica Beach, PhD, Candy Bedoya, PhD, I-Farn Lei, PhD, and Sara Pollan, PhD

Ashley Vo, PharmD, administrative director of the Transplant Immunotherapy Program at the Comprehensive Transplant Center, who had nominated Jordan for the honor, outlined his important discoveries. They include the identification of IL-6 as a cytokine responsible for graft rejection in solid organ transplants. She said his breakthrough contributions have helped thousands of patients.

Michelsen, assistant professor of medicine and a research scientist at the F. Widjaja Foundation Inflammatory Bowel and Immunobiology Research Institute, received the David L. Rimoin Teaching Excellence Award. Winners of the award, named for the late Cedars-Sinai scientist, teacher and physician, are selected by the doctoral candidates. In an interview after the ceremony, Michelsen said she was "very surprised" and honored by the award.

More than 30 students are enrolled in the 8-year-old Graduate Program in Biomedical Science and Translational Medicine, which focuses on transforming laboratory discoveries into therapies, treatments and cures that directly benefit patients.

The program, accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, is overseen by Leon Fine, MD, professor of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, chair of Biomedical Sciences and vice dean for Research and Graduate Research Education. The program director is David Underhill, PhD, professor of Biomedical Sciences and Medicine and the Janis and William Wetsman Family Chair in Inflammatory Bowel Disease.