Transcript of Chancellor's 2012 Commencement Address

April 30, 2012

UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, ushered in the start of the 2012 commencement season by giving a speech on April 24. Here is the transcript from that speech.

Vice Chancellor Joseph Castro, PhD: Good afternoon. I want to welcome everyone to this celebration of UCSF's commencement. My name is Joe Castro, and I serve as the Vice Chancellor for Student Academic Affairs. It's my pleasure to introduce you to Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann. She became the ninth chancellor at UCSF on August 3rd, 2009. An oncologist and renowned biotechnology leader, Dr. Desmond-Hellmann holds the Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Distinguished Professor appointment at UCSF. Prior to joining UCSF, the Chancellor spent 14 years at Genentech, where from 2004 to 2009, she served as President of Product Development. She's received numerous honors and awards for the critical role that she's played in biotechnology, shepherding the first targeted cancer therapies to clinical trial as President of Product Development at Genentech. Last week, the Chancellor received from the Commonwealth Club of California the 2012 Distinguished Citizen Award for leadership, both here at UCSF and at Genentech. Please join me in welcoming Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann.

Chancellor Desmond-Hellmann: Thank you very much, Joe, for that kind introduction. And I want to give my warm welcome to everyone attending this event, either here on the Parnassus campus, or people who are watching the live webcast of this celebration. We did this last year, and I like it so much we're here again. This event allows me to celebrate with the entire campus one of the best things that happens at UCSF, and that is our 2012 commencements for all our students. So let's just start by celebrating, and a deep and warm congratulations to all the students who are in the audience or listening who are graduating this year. Congratulations. Now as you know well, you're not graduating today, so we're just anticipating that whole graduation season that we're signing up for. And I want to make sure that you all know how proud we are of you, and how much we understand what a difficult journey it can be, and so this is a big deal. 

I want to tell you a little bit about the class of 2012. 806 students from 49 states and 51 countries. Amazing. Each one of you has travelled different paths to get to this point today, a journey that's been shared and supported by many people in your lives — your family, your friends, your fellow students, and, of course, UCSF faculty and staff. UCSF is really fortunate to have faculty who distinguish themselves as leaders, not only in health education, but in policy, in patient care, in basic and clinical research, that ultimately aims to save and improve lives. Many have nourished, mentored, and guided you along the way. And one of my favorite things to hear from students when I ask "What do you like best at UCSF?" is "UCSF faculty." And I know many of these individuals have touched you along your journeys.

Now during your journey here at UCSF, over the past four years, there have been some amazing moments in time, for us, as a campus. Let me just talk about some of those amazing moments. In 2009, shortly after I arrived as Chancellor, molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn was named as the Nobel Prize winner in medicine or physiology for her discovery of the enzyme telomerase. This enzyme plays a key role in normal cell function, as well as cell aging, and in many cancers. And one of the highlights of my chancellorship was doing an interview of Liz for students. And I remember very well during that interview, someone asked her about work/life balance. And she described that doesn't come in a single day. That happens over a lifetime. And I don't know about if any of the students were in the audience that day, but I personally felt a lot better hearing that from Liz. Everything in perspective.

In 2010, Nobel laureate Stan Prusiner received the President's National Medal of Science for his pioneering work that led to the discovery of and ongoing research on a novel infectious agent, the prion, which causes mad cow disease, and other related fatal neurodegenerative diseases in both animals and humans. So it was great to see Stan's smiling face next to President Obama in 2010.

In 2011, we celebrated the topping out ceremony of UCSF's Medical Center at Mission Bay, a world-class hospital complex for children, women, and cancer patients, that will set a new standard for patient and family centered healthcare, safety, sustainability, and translational medicine when it opens in 2015. Amazing for our campus to have that new hospital about to open up. But today I want to particularly focus on our commitment at UCSF to education.

Today we're celebrating your significant achievement, graduating from UCSF, where our schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, and our graduate program consistently rank among the top in the nation. Education is critical to UCSF's vision to be the world's preeminent health sciences innovator.

As Chancellor, I continue to strive for excellence in education, and we're working on multiple fronts to make sure we stay at the top in education, and achieve our plans. So I want to make sure that you know the kinds of investments we're making in education to make us even better. We're investing in new technology to enhance teaching and learning, that prepares students to meet the challenges of the 21st century. We're expanding opportunities for interprofessional education, for collaboration, and supporting new team based, interdisciplinary learning models. And we're fostering partnerships with industry and with our community to accelerate how we bring our groundbreaking science not only to our local community, but to our nation and the world, through our global health sciences program.

We're also creating a learning environment — and I know important to all the students, faculty, and the staff of UCSF — we want to be the kind of environment that brings out the best in everyone, no matter what your background or where you came from. A place where students and trainees thrive.

Last week, I met with a group of graduating students for breakfast. And I told the students that this reminded me of when I was in private industry. It's called an exit interview. People know what an interview is. You really want to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly. What did we do well, and what could we do better? I found these incredibly helpful to know what's done well at UCSF, and that always makes me smile. But just as importantly, things that we could do better. So I want to tell those students and your colleagues that I'm really committed to those kinds of improvements and not to stay still as an institution or rest on our laurels, but continuously strive to be the kind of environment where everybody thrives.

We could not accomplish UCSF's ambitious goals without our students and trainees. You challenge us, you push us, and you inspire us. And I am very confident in the future specifically because of all of you.

Now, last weekend, we celebrated for the first time ever at UCSF an all-school — including the graduate program — alumni weekend. Now, there was no football, so it wasn't really homecoming, but it felt a lot like Homecoming. A lot of energy and a lot of joy at seeing how proud we all could be of UCSF's graduates who are the world's preeminent clinicians, researchers, policymakers, educators, and entrepreneurs. And now you're all about to join them.

Here's just a glimpse of some of the unique characteristics of the class of 2012. The class is slightly more than two-thirds, about 68 percent women. There's 548 women graduating from UCSF in 2012 and 32 percent men, 258. So men are the minority at UCSF. [Laughter]

The graduating students came from six continents to UCSF. Now, nobody from Antarctica yet. [Laughter] The graduate who was born the furthest from UCSF comes from Johannesburg in South Africa, more than 10,500 miles from San Francisco. Amazing. And some 43 percent of our graduates are California natives. Eighty-six percent are California residents.

When I tell people about the importance of public higher education in California, I think people are actually surprised that such a large number of our graduates are from California and will care for people, teach, do research, many in the state of California. The youngest graduate is 22 years old and the oldest graduate is more than twice that. [Laughter]

The class is diverse, reflecting the complexion of our state. 18.7 percent of graduating students overall are under-represented minorities, and less than 35 percent of our graduating students are Caucasians, for people who identified themselves when they came to school. So a really interesting mix that I think contributes to our excellence.

Now, one of the things I want to make sure to reinforce in my comments today is the importance of our public mission here at UCSF. We are deeply proud of everything we do to give back to the community, the state, the nation, and the world. Educational access and affordability are an essential part of that public commitment, and we need to continue to attract the best, the brightest, and the most diverse students regardless of their financial circumstances. And we must make it possible for every student to be able to realize their dreams.

We want to be a place where students can come and pursue their dreams as students. But just as importantly, we want all of our students — and it's particularly resonant now, given that it's commencement season — we want the students to be able to pursue their dreams no matter where they are. 

A student should be able to pursue a dream of treating patients at San Francisco General Hospital or one of the community clinics in the city and county of San Francisco, or at a sub-Saharan African village, or anywhere in the world where patient care or research brings them.

Patients might want to work at a start-up or go to Washington and influence policy. It's all good, and it shouldn't be encumbered by debt or thoughts of paying back large student loans. We don't want to stifle those dreams.

As you know, UCSF and public universities across the nation are facing incredibly challenging financial times. Given the realities of the state funding here in California, it's been a big part of what I care about, as chancellor, to make sure that we can achieve our ambitions as an institution, not just as students and trainees, but as the institution UCSF has to secure private support to support all these ambitions that we have, and specifically to support our public mission.

Now, recently I proposed to the UC Board of Regents that UCSF assign a working group to consider a new governance structure for UCSF. I did that because I want to strengthen and to sustain the excellence here at UCSF, as part of the 10-campus UC system. The work group is expected to make recommendations back to me in June, and I expect to return to the Board of Regents in July with a proposal specifically focused on how UCSF can best sustain our excellence at such a challenging time.

To provide more assistance to students specifically, today I'm pleased to announce to you that UCSF is launching a campus-wide, four-year, $100 million educational fundraising initiative specifically to support students in teaching. This is the first time ever in the history of UCSF that we've had such an initiative.

A hundred million dollars. This includes $80 million to fund new scholarships and fellowships and $20 million in support of curriculum innovation, interprofessional education, and teaching facilities. Very important to sustain our excellence and innovation in education here at UCSF.

Now, last year my husband, Nick Hellmann, who I met here as a resident, and I made a personal gift of $1 million to support professional student education here at UCSF. And it's kind of embarrassing for me to tell you that. I would like to keep it a secret. Anonymous gifts are, in many ways, less embarrassing than public gifts. So I want you to know why we made that gift public.

We made that gift public because we wanted to make a challenge to other friends and supporters of UCSF. So we made it a matching gift. So I'm particularly excited to tell you that friends of UCSF who agree with us that education at UCSF is a great investment in the future have matched the full million dollars, $250,000 for each of the professional schools.

So that now turned into $2 million and I think puts us off on a great start of our educational fundraising initiative. And I'm deeply grateful to the donors for each of the four professional schools, all of them alums, who together have matched our gift. We can have more matches. [Laughter] It's all good. [Applause] So with that kind of generosity, I'm very confident that we'll reach our $100 million goal.

So now, a look forward. That's traditional at commencement season, looking forward and to the future. This year, I'm going to mark my 30th anniversary of my own graduation from medical school. It seems amazing. I can't be that old. I graduated in 1982, and UCSF was my first choice for my internal medicine internship. It is impossible for me to describe to you how excited I was when I got my first choice and was able to come here to UCSF to do my internal medicine residency.

Now, here I am as chancellor of that very same institution that set the bar for my own aspirations. I remain just as inspired about the opportunity to work at UCSF as I was the first day of my internship. And I can't imagine what the patients thought when they saw these young interns coming at them.

Now, why I am so inspired? It's not just being misty about my 30-year anniversary. That inspiration comes from my daily interactions with faculty, staff, and trainees at UCSF. And I am convinced that UCSF has not gone down, but in fact has gone way up since I first interacted with the institution. I am very sure that the innovators of the future are here at UCSF.

I also know that I'll see some of you again, because many of our graduates become leaders in health and science around the world, but hundreds return to work here at UCSF. In fact, during that breakfast I described to you with students, I learned a new acronym. I thought I knew them all. So what does UCSF stand for? "You Can Stay Forever." [Laughter] Who knew?

Yes, you can. There are many wonderful examples in our midst, including world-renowned AIDS researcher and pioneer Paul Volberding, public health advocate Kevin Grumbach, and neurosurgeon Mitch Berger, among many, many others that I could tell you about.

I myself returned to UCSF after working for two years in private practice, and 16 years in private industry, including 14 years at Genentech. Genentech was founded based on research that happened in part here at UCSF. And I returned here because I believe in UCSF. I believe UCSF matter a lot to the world, and that everything we do here makes a big difference.

So in closing, I want to just make a few comments about a speech I gave last week. And the speech was like those speeches that you give that are best when they're over. You know, that kind, the anxiety-provoking type.

So UCSF students invited me to give a lecture in Cole Hall. And the title of the lecture was "The Last Lecture." Here I am again. I'm here as living proof that in fact this was a pseudo "Last Lecture," a theoretical topic based on sharing life's lessons that you would — should it be your last lecture.

And I'm really sure they weren't hinting at anything. I'm telling. No. From the experiences I had treating patients as a cancer physician, working in the biotechnology industry, serving as initially, a visiting UCSF faculty as a clinical scientist in Uganda, and now leading UCSF for the past three years, I have definitely learned to appreciate the simple things in life, but to always aim big.

Set your sights on making an impact in the world. Change the world. Relentlessly strive for excellence, and follow your passion. Those were some of my life's lessons. But the most important thing, at least for me — and I got a lot of comments from students. I think they were surprised — you can control a lot about your life.

So decide that you're going to be happy, and you're going to be healthy. Make that decision, and then do that. Value your family. Valuing your family, and deriving strength from that family allows you to take huge risks. And sometimes those risks pay off.

So go for it. Pursue your goals. Find your inner compass, whatever moves you, and what you aspire to do. And that inner compass is going to point you in the right direction, maybe not every day, but over a lifetime. I'm very confident it will.

Make sure you do the important work that will benefit human health. And you will, as I do, feel really, really proud to say you came from UCSF, and you made a difference.

So once again, I know I join all my colleagues in telling all of the students in the class of 2012, and just as importantly, all the faculty and staff who supported you in that journey, a big, hearty congratulations, and "carpe diem," seize the day. Enjoy this moment. It comes once in a lifetime.

Thank you all for listening, and congratulations.

[Applause]

There's time for question and answer. And happily, I have — I have many colleagues in this room who can help me answer questions. So ask away. There's some microphones that are going to be passed if you have questions, so the people listening to the Webcast can hear, too.

Audience member: Hi. You mentioned interprofessional education a couple of times. Can you talk about what you're going to do to expand in that area?

Desmond-Hellmann: So interprofessional education is increasingly a part of excellence in clinical education. And so some of the things that have already gone on is the Teaching and Learning Center, which is a great environment for interprofessional education.

And the hiring of a new director for our interprofessional education efforts, to work on curriculum and curriculum sharing — let me invite Joe Castro to come up and join me, because Joe will likely want to say a few more words about interprofessional education.

And while Joe joins me, let me just say that one of the things I learned from the students in talking to the graduating students actually last year, was that some of the best experiences they had were their volunteer activities. And one of the students described to me working in a community clinic, and the fact that in that community clinic they were doing real work.

And the real work was in an interprofessional setting. So they had — and what she described was, the pharmacy student brought up some things she hadn't thought about. And she got a real — an on-the-job understanding of what it means to collaborate interprofessionally.

So I thought that was really good wisdom to use the volunteer and community service activities as a part of how we think of interprofessional training.

Castro: Thank you, Sue. As the chancellor said, we've just launched a brand new center for innovation and interprofessional health education, and recruited probably the finest scholar in the world, I think, in this area, Dr. Scott Reeves, who just started with us a few months ago.

He's working closely with a group of faculty designated by each of the deans. And we're looking, as the chancellor said, boldly at the future. And we're thinking about lots of different areas around curriculum and research, and practice as well.

One other thing I wanted to mention in the interprofessional area — and I actually see our director, Scott Reeves. I'd like to ask Scott to raise his hand. There he is, Dr. Scott Reeves.

One of the things that we're working on right now is a brand new, online degree that is going to have an interprofessional element to it. It's a master's degree in healthcare administration and interprofessional leadership, being led by the dean, and faculty, and the school nursing, but working with faculty across the schools.

And assuming we get all the approvals, that would be in place by fall of 2013, just a little over a year from now.

Desmond-Hellmann: Great. Thank you, Joe.

Audience member: Chancellor, you mentioned that this is the 30th anniversary of you graduating from the UCSF School of Medicine.

Desmond-Hellmann: No. I graduated from University of Nevada School of Medicine.

Audience member: Okay. I'm sorry. Oops.

Desmond-Hellmann: Go, Wolf Pack.

Audience member: Residency program.

Desmond-Hellmann: Then I came here.

Audience member: But 30 years — I'm sure when you first started, you were maybe a handful of women in your profession. And to fast-forward now to, look at this graduating class, where the majority are women. And you and others like you kind of paved the way, and were trail blazers.

So looking back 30 years and seeing this graduating class, what goes through your mind as far as the impact that you and others, other women have made in the profession?

Desmond-Hellmann: Well, I do remember very distinctly being in the minority. I think we were one-fifth of my medical school class, in the class of 1982 at UNR. So it was still unusual to be female. What I think was even more unusual, and something I've definitely experienced in my 30 years as a physician, is the leadership in science and in clinical care has largely been male.

So I think as the first female chancellor, I can attest to that. One of the things I notice, since I really enjoy mentorship and leadership, it's not uncommon that people ask me about role models. And one of the aspects of my own career, that I've often found interesting, is how few female role models that I've been able to have throughout my career.

I will say the happy new is that has definitely changed since I've been back at UCSF. There are many wonderful women leaders at our institution. And so I think that for this graduating class, not only do I have incredible hopes and dreams for all of you, both male and female, to be in a world that's vastly different than the one I entered, but you've had the opportunity to have an incredibly diverse set of role models here at UCSF. And I think that's fantastic.

Audience member: What do you anticipate will be the impact of the report you co-chaired with Francis Collins for the National Academy of Sciences toward precision medicine?

Desmond-Hellmann: Well, the report that I co-chaired last year through the National Academy, towards precision medicine, was an attempt to try and connect more tightly the research enterprise, particularly as it pertains to this vast analytic power we have now to do low-cost, high-throughput sequencing, and understand the genome, understand molecular biology, really understand the biology of diseases, but to connect that directly to clinical care, so that we start to talk more and more about human biology, and understand human biology, and that all that great science can be brought to bear to improve health and the care of patients.

So what I expect will happen with electronic health records, and with our increased ability to use data and apply it to patient benefit, is literally an explosion of what's possible, about bringing all that data to bear to help patients. It's also going to be a time in what the report called for as a series of pilots. We're going to have to figure out really challenging issues; like privacy, data sharing, collaboration.

The promise is that patients can be more directly involved in their health and wellness, and that all the great science can actually improve health, and to do so more cost effectively and more efficiently. So that's my hope for the report. Last week, I published an editorial where I called on patients and patient advocacy groups to get more involved. Because I think the challenges of this enterprise are high, and I'm very confident that if patients drive the outcomes, they'll be better outcomes. 

Audience member: How did being a resident at UCSF prepare you for your future?

Desmond-Hellmann: Oh, in so many ways. Let me start with the most important thing. And I wouldn't have told you this when I finished my residency, so I'm glad I learned it later in life. I thought when I was a resident that I was learning technical skills — you know, putting in a central line, how to intubate someone, how to answer questions in residency reports so I kept up and looked smart enough — you know, all those important things at the time. I think the most important thing I learned at UCSF is values. And I learned that absolutely from the faculty. There were so many wonderful role models who I saw. I saw how they spoke to patients and their families. I saw how they cared for patients. I saw, particularly even more in my fellowship than my residency, how you have end of life discussions with a cancer patient or their family. So I think I deeply appreciate the values I took away from that experience.

But just as importantly, I took away a sense of excellence, and a sense of how much it really mattered, really no stone unturned to figure out what was best for that patient or that care, to keep up in medicine with like continuing medical education and the like. And I will say, later, those high standards came back to help me again when I had to hire many, many new clinicians and pharmacists and other health care professionals at Genentech. When we were in a really busy hiring period, I would tell my colleagues, "If it says UCSF on the CV, extra credit." And if you say, "Well, that's biased," oh, absolutely it was biased in all the right ways. It was a good bias. I think that it's a lot easier — and I'm very confident — it is easier to find smart people than people with great values. And so once you have people who are really talented and technically very well trained, what separates the ones you want to work around are the values. I definitely learned that here.

Audience member: You had mentioned that you had lunch with a group of students recently. It sounded like it was very informational and enlightening to you. Are you going to pass that information on to others so we can learn from that conversation if there's key learnings?

Desmond-Hellmann: So I would tell you a couple of things. One of the things that I think is really important is I always feel like, as Chancellor, I get exposed to this vast campus, and all of our various missions, and the people. So I value highly those opportunities when I can hear people's experience, particularly at a time — that's why I think commencement is so amazing, because it's both celebratory, and it's one of the few times — I mean we're all going a thousand miles an hour. It's a nice stop, pause, take stock. So I value that. But for me, I add my input and what I take from that to the mix.

So one of the aspects of life as Chancellor that I value very highly, and I feel really good about this year, is the Chancellor's Executive Cabinet. So everyone who reports to me — and that is from John Plotts and Jeff Bluestone, as the Provost, to all the Deans, to Jaime Sepulveda and Reg Kelly — and just a number of our leaders sit with me once a week and talk about what we can do better and how we can drive UCSF's excellence. So for me, that's a team. And being a member of such a wonderful team, each of which, we all contribute our own experiences. So yes, I'll bring that conversation back to that group and the Chancellor's Executive Commitment. I bring many other experiences with staff and faculty and community supporters back to those conversations. Because I do think that mix of different and diverse opinions enriches UCSF.

Time for lunch? Thank you so much, all of you, for coming in. I think for those who are in the class of 2012, to conclude our program today, I want to invite all the graduating students out here in front so that we can give you just a little tribute to recognize your commencement. And so please accept these roses as a little tiny token of our appreciation for how well you've done, and how you're going to represent UCSF and make us all proud of you. Congratulations, and thanks, everyone, for being here.