New PhDs Urged to Uphold Rigorous Ethics


Sir Mark Pepys, MD, PhD, professor of Medicine and founding director of the Wolfson Drug Discovery Unit at the University College London, delivers the commencement address.

The fourth commencement of the Cedars-Sinai Graduate Program in Biomedical Science and Translational Medicine delivered powerful messages to members of the Class of 2016: Shun shoddy science, cast skeptical eyes on published research and embrace the unexpected. The program trains students to transform laboratory discoveries into therapies that directly benefit patients.

Seven students received their doctorates at the 90-minute ceremony Wednesday, June 15, in Harvey Morse Auditorium. The afternoon graduation included a festive academic processional of more than 70 Cedars-Sinai faculty members, leaders and alumni before family and friends.

The event featured a forceful defense of scientific ethics by the keynote speaker, Sir Mark Pepys, FRS, MD, PhD, professor of Medicine and founding director of the Wolfson Drug Discovery Unit at the University College London.

"Medicine, in its broadest sense, is a very high calling," Pepys said. "Serious laboratory research is tremendously demanding, and it is easy to lose sight of scientific principles."

In his dean's address, Shlomo Melmed, MD, dean of the medical faculty, executive vice president of Academic Affairs, professor of Medicine and the Helene A. and Philip E. Hixon Distinguished Chair in Investigative Medicine, called Pepys "a powerful public voice for transparency in the medical literature." He urged the new graduates to be critical consumers of medical journals.

Elaborating on that theme, Pepys said, "Rigorous, robust, informed criticism of the work of others is a vitally important component of good science. Nobody should get a free pass." He noted that even top-rated academic journals have published false observations. As an example, Pepys and Melmed both cited an influential 1998 study in the Lancet, retracted 12 years later, that linked vaccinations to autism in children.

On a happier note, Pepys said he hoped the graduates would frequently experience serendipity, which the inventor of the word, English writer Horace Walpole (1717-1797), described as "making discoveries, by accident and sagacity," of things not sought. Pepys also urged them to seek out mentors. "The stellar faculty of Cedars-Sinai has already given each of the graduates here a wonderful opportunity to benefit from inspiring and world-leading scientific expertise," he said.

In her address, Class Speaker Janet Markman praised the program's leaders and described the long, rigorous hours of classroom and laboratory work required to earn a PhD. "But in the end, we get to experience a joy that is nearly indescribable. The saying 'hard work pays off' does not do this justice," she said.

The other 2016 graduates were Aslam Abbasi Akhtar, Deisy A. Contreras, Ryan Cordner, Irina Epifantseva, Nargess Hassanzadeh-Kiabi and Corey Seehus.

It was not just students who were honored at the commencement. Three faculty members received awards as well.

Robert H. Baloh, MD, PhD, associate professor and director of neuromuscular medicine at the Cedars-Sinai Department of Neurology, received the 2016 Prize for Research in Scientific Medicine (PRISM) award, which recognizes outstanding scientific or medical breakthroughs achieved in the preceding five years by Cedars-Sinai faculty members.

Helen Goodridge, PhD, associate professor of Biomedical Sciences, and Joshua Breunig, PhD, assistant professor of Biomedical Sciences, shared the David L. Rimoin Teaching Excellence Award, named for the late Cedars-Sinai scientist, teacher and physician. The winners are selected by the doctoral candidates as inspirational teachers.

The Cedars-Sinai Graduate Program in Biomedical Science and Translational Medicine, 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's director is David Underhill, PhD, professor of Biomedical Sciences and Medicine and the Janis and William Wetsman Family Chair in Inflammatory Bowel Disease.