Neuroscientist Talks About Transformation of Biomedicine During Commencement Address

Rockefeller President Marc Tessier-Lavigne Urges UCSF Graduates to Take Risks

By Jeffrey Norris on May 25, 2012

An aspiration of UCSF faculty and campus leaders is that the students trained here continue to transform biomedicine through innovation and risk taking, a theme highlighted by Marc Tessier-Lavigne, PhD, president at Rockefeller University, at the 2012 Graduate Division commencement ceremony on May 18.

Tessier-Lavigne, a neurobiologist and leader in the study of brain development, served on the UCSF faculty from 1991 to 2001.

After leaving UCSF he went to Stanford University and in 2003 joined Genentech as senior vice president of Research Drug Discovery, leaving academia because of the company’s "potential to create breakthrough therapies for unmet medical needs.”

In 2009, he was promoted to executive vice president for research and chief scientific officer. Tessier-Lavigne was elected tenth president of Rockefeller University in 2011.

“UCSF was my first academic appointment and I was proud to be here,” he told the audience in the Jeanne Robertson Auditorium at UCSF Mission Bay. “It was the perfect place to start my career. By the early nineties, UCSF had established itself as one of the most exciting, productive and supportive environments for biological and biomedical research in the world. I loved the mission, the culture, and above all I loved our people.”

Tessier-Lavigne talked about today’s challenges to those who work in science and medicine, including exploding health care costs, reduced funding for science, an uncertain economy, and environmental challenges such as climate change and unwise resource use.

However, he added, “Alongside these challenges there also are enormous opportunities, many brought about by scientific and technological advances. … I believe that with the right focus … we can innovate our way out of many of the problems confronting us.”

Cancer Research Illustrates Promise of Risk Taking and Innovation

“For biologists, including members of the graduating class, this is truly a golden age of basic research, disease research and translational medicine,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “There is a new convergence of science and medicine, and new ways to interrogate disease.

“We can now look forward to understanding with a resolution that was previously unimaginable how the cell works and how the brain works, and how the organism develops, fights infection, regenerates itself and ages. This revolution has also stimulated a new convergence of science and medicine, thanks to the development of powerful new technologies.”

Nowhere is this convergence more evident than in cancer research, Tessier-Lavigne said.

“Building on the pioneering work of Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus here at UCSF, our understanding of the molecular basis of cancer broke open in the nineties and the two-thousands. And this in turn has fueled the development of a first wave of targeted therapies … that are now showing benefits.

“We can expect that knowledge gained from the clinic and from further basic research will fuel the development of even more potent and more selective drugs. … We can expect that the face of cancer treatment will be transformed in the next two decades, with greatly extended survival, and even cures, for many cancers.”

The transformative advances in cancer will be mirrored in other areas of biology and disease, according to Tessier-Lavigne.

Taking Calculated Risks

The recent history of translating science for human benefits tells us that “big advances can only be built on deep knowledge of the root causes of problems,” Tessier-Lavigne said. Long-term investments are needed to get to the causes of problems. Advances require constant experimentation and calculated risk, he added, as well as collaborations between experts from diverse backgrounds and with complementary expertise.

Not only companies and research teams, but also individuals need to grow by taking calculated risks and learning from their boundary-pushing experiences, he said.

“Whatever path you choose, choose one you are passionate about, and focus and dig deeply into your subject matter. As you have already learned from your studies, mastery of your field provides the necessary substrate for innovation and real advances. So focus. Be rigorous. Don’t settle for half measures. Above all, strive for excellence.”

Tessier-Lavigne, a former Rhodes Scholar and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of The Royal Society, a fellow of The Royal Society of Canada, a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences (UK), a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the recipient of many honors and awards.

Photos by Susan Merrell