Editors’ Note: This season, about 18,000 future doctors will make the time-honored transition from medical school to residency. It’s a time of pride, excitement and understandable apprehension about the future. Speaking at Einstein’s 56th commencement, Dr. Arturo Casadevall talked about the importance of pursuing new knowledge in the quest for success, productivity and purpose. He shared his fascinating journey into biomedical research, which began after he received his diploma to exterminate bugs and insects. Now’s he’s a prominent immunologist, professor and chair of the department of microbiology & immunology at Einstein.
Here are excerpts from his speech about the importance of scientific knowledge and its ability to improve human health. You can read the entire speech at https://www.einstein.yu.edu/downloads/casadevall-commencement-address.pdf. You can also watch Dr. Casadevall’s complete speech and see the entire 2014 Einstein Commencement Ceremony. For commencement photos, visit our Facebook photo album.
Besides being lifelong learners, humans are remarkably curious. If one of those cataclysms that I mentioned earlier was to befall us and cause us to disappear, I like to think that if another intelligent species discovered our remains, and they would conclude that we were curious and that we strived to solve problems with new knowledge. Somewhere on the moon and on Mars there would be probes that will last for eons as powerful testaments to our curiosity. The curiosity of humanity resides in each of you, and each of you can nourish it and keep it healthy. Each of you has the potential to generate new knowledge. Whether your next destination is a career in surgery, administration, bench research, statistical analysis, psychiatry, delivering babies or any of the multitude of fields that medicine encompasses, you will have an opportunity to make observations that can translate into new knowledge. If each one of you goes forward and works to make your field better through the acquisition of new knowledge you will leave a great legacy. Knowledge is a powerful way to make things better.
Unfortunately, today’s science is ailing from multiple maladies that include inadequate funding, high administrative burdens, workforce imbalances, winner-take-all economics and a variety of systematic challenges. Our society, with its focus on short-term rewards, is moving away from funding basic science because its usefulness cannot always be articulated. Nonetheless, there is overwhelming historical evidence that transformative discoveries generally follow a passion for unraveling the mechanism of a curious observation or phenomenon. Now, hold this thought for a moment while I get back to your cell phone. In 1916 Einstein proposed his theory of general relativity, which envisioned a fundamentally new vision of reality. The theory stemmed from Einstein’s unfettered curiosity about the world around him. For decades the theory of relativity provided no immediate benefit to anyone. In fact, Einstein would have been extremely hard pressed to make a case for the usefulness of his theory in the world of 1916. Had he written a grant that would be awarded based on its significance, as grants are today, it might have failed to be funded. However, if you dial forward to the 1990s you will see that relativity is essential to make your phone work, because it relies on GPS, which in turn relies on atomic clocks that run at different rates on the earth and in orbit. There are innumerable other examples where inquiry into basic processes resulted in transformative technologies and a better world. If on the day that I received my degree we had focused only on the knowledge and tools that were available at the time, we would still have 1985 technology, and that would mean no cell phone, no HIV drugs, no vaccines against cervical cancer, continued antacids for ulcers and none of the progress that you and I have seen.
So , as newly minted medical professionals and scientists, I urge you to support science, the scientific process and research in any way that you can. That means making the case to your families, to your friends and, for physicians, to your patients. Physicians as they talk to their patients are in an excellent position to communicate how advances in medicine are dependent on research. While this is critical if the patient is a politician who can influence funding for research, it is important to do so with everyone, for every patient has a vote. If we are going to continue to make progress against disease and suffering, we need a healthy scientific enterprise, and that requires the support of everyone in this room.
So let’s go back to the business of exterminating bugs that I told you about at the beginning of this speech. When I was 19 years old my father did not think that I was going anywhere in life and he insisted that I go to school and get a pest-control operator license. He told me that with $500 I could buy the tanks and some pesticides and start a business and I would always make a living in NYC since there would always be roaches to kill. I did go to pest-control school. The classes were held at night in a community college in Brooklyn and some of my other classmates were inmates from Rikers Island, who usually arrived chained to one another. They were there undergoing some sort of correction by learning how to kill roaches. I got my pest-control diploma and if you visit me in my office you will see that I proudly display it on my wall. Why am I telling you this? Because I want to make the point that life has many branch points and that the road to this podium was by no means straight or assured. In fact, I feel very lucky to have gotten as far as I have. In medicine I specialize in infectious disease and my research is focused on killing microbes. Hence, I am indeed in the business of killing bugs, so you could argue that I did take my father’s advice but just kept going.
So I end this address by urging and encouraging you to embrace a life of learning and committing yourselves to generating knowledge. If you embrace lifelong learning and generate knowledge, I believe that a day will come when one of you will give a commencement address, possibly in this same hall, and you will tell the graduates that you remember a terrible time when many cancers were incurable, elderly individuals developed dementia and there were only a few therapies for psychiatric diseases. When that day comes I hope that you will deliver the message that the way forward is to embrace lifelong learning and generate new knowledge to ensure that an even better world will be built with the tools of science, ethics and investigation on the wings of curiosity and the human spirit. Congratulations again on your great achievement and thank you for your attention.