Graduates Urged to Help World's Less Privileged

PhD graduate Mecca Madany receives her academic hood.

Cedars-Sinai marked the fifth annual commencement of its Graduate Programs in Biomedical Science and Translational Medicine on June 7 with an urgent appeal for medical scientists to pursue "revolutionary innovation" that can save millions of imperiled lives around the globe.

Keynote speaker Tadataka "Tachi" Yamada, MD, urged graduates in the Class of 2017 to use their knowledge and science to serve those who are less privileged.

Yamada's passionate call to arms was a highlight of the ceremony, attended by Cedars-Sinai faculty, leaders, alumni, students, friends and family in Harvey Morse Auditorium. The 90-minute program opened with a colorful academic procession of 100 faculty members and concluded with the event's first-ever awards for lifetime achievement and graduate education leadership.

Seven PhDs and two master's degrees — the first in the master's program — were awarded, along with the 2017 Cedars-Sinai Prize for Research in Scientific Medicine (PRISM Prize).

In his keynote address, Yamada, a partner with the Frazier Healthcare Partners investment firm, traced his evolution from physician to scientist to pharmaceutical executive to president of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program (from 2006-11). He said his combined experiences awakened him to the desperate medical plight of people in less developed regions of the world.

"Here's the problem: Six million children die each year — imagine that — from diseases that can be prevented or treated," Yamada said. "Absolute moral tragedy."

Takako "Traci" Mizuno receives her PhD diploma from Shlomo Melmed, MD, dean of the medical faculty, executive vice president of Academic Affairs and professor of Medicine. At left is Thomas M. Priselac, president and CEO.

To stem this tide, the scientific community should promote translation of research discoveries into healthcare that addresses the pressing needs of all sectors of the world's population, he said. Scientists must be willing to fail and take risks to make progress. While perfection is not required, quick work is needed. "Imperfect tools, applied with urgency, can have an impact," Yamada said.

Such efforts already have logged successes in combating malaria, tuberculosis and other worldwide scourges, but more needs to be done, he told the graduates.

"Whatever you do," Yamada concluded, "I hope at some point you will understand there are billions of people who have no access to the progress you're contributing to, and that you'll take the time in your career to address that problem."

The PhD graduates were Isaac Asare Bediako, Melissa Jones, Mecca Madany, Takako "Traci" Mizuno, Rebecca Paszkiewicz, Samuel Sances and Tom Thomas. The master of science graduates were Oana Dumitrascu and Yesol Sapozhnikov. Among the diseases the students tackled in their theses were diabetes, retinal degeneration, brain cancer, pulmonary fibrosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Several made novel discoveries in their fields.

Tadataka "Tachi" Yamada, MD, partner with the Frazier Healthcare Partners investment firm, delivers the commencement's keynote address.

In his address, Sances, the Class of 2017 speaker, thanked Cedars-Sinai's leaders and "incredible mentors, family and friends" for supporting the students. "We have a responsibility to engage in our efforts as if there are more lives at stake than our own, as our training in translational medicine has shown us," he said.

Relatives and friends from around the country applauded the graduates. One of the biggest entourages, totaling 25, belonged to Madany, the first in her family to earn a doctorate. Born in Los Angeles, she has lived in several countries, including Gambia, where she fell in love with science as a high school student. "The first time I looked under a microscope, it was actually in Africa," Madany said." I'll never forget. I was like: 'Oh, cells! OK, this is awesome.'"

Four award winners were announced at the commencement:

Cedars-Sinai Prize for Research in Scientific Medicine (PRISM Prize): Ueli Rutishauser, PhD, associate professor of Neurosurgery, Neurology and Biomedical Sciences, was honored for "seminal and paradigm-shifting observations regarding the circuit mechanisms underlying human memory formation." The annual prize honors a Cedars-Sinai scientist who has made an exemplary scientific breakthrough or produced a critical medical insight within the past five years.

Janet Markman, PhD, left, who graduated last year from the Graduate Programs, with 2017 PhD graduate Rebecca Paszkiewicz.

Cedars-Sinai Lifetime Achievement Award: George Berci, MD, described as "a beloved faculty member, friend to all of us and, quite simply, an inspiration." Berci, 96, who joined the Department of Surgery in 1970, pioneered the modern laparoscopic surgical platform. "Every achievement that may be credited to me was the work of a team," Berci said. "And just to set the record straight, while I am grateful and honored by this award, I'm not retiring yet," he added, drawing applause. This was the inaugural award.

David L. Rimoin Teaching Excellence Award: Michelle Jones, PhD, project scientist at the Center for Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics, was selected by the graduates for this annual recognition. Jones was awarded her doctorate in 2013 at the PhD program's inaugural commencement. "I'm very honored," she said in an interview. Her advice to teachers: "I think it’s very important that we listen to our students and try to deliver to them what it is they need from us, rather than what we think they need to receive from us."

Distinguished Leadership in Graduation Education Research Award: David Underhill, PhD, professor of Biomedical Sciences and Medicine, associate director of the Division of Immunology Research and the Janis and William Wetsman Family Chair in Inflammatory Bowel Disease.

Underhill led the graduate programs from their inception until last year, when William Parks, PhD, professor of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, executive chair for Research and scientific director of the Women's Guild Lung Institute, assumed the role.

"It's awesome to be recognized by your peers and the students," Underhill said in an interview. Asked his reaction to seeing the graduates receive their diplomas, he said: "That’s why we do this work. That’s what being faculty is all about: watching students grow and helping them achieve ambitious goals."

The Cedars-Sinai Graduate Programs in Biomedical Science and Translational Medicine began in 2008 as a PhD program. In 2015, a master of science degree in biomedical science and translational medicine was added. This fall, two more master of science degree programs, in magnetic resonance in medicine and in health delivery science, are scheduled to start. Thirty-five students are enrolled in the current programs.

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