Vol 8. Issue 17 / May 19, 2008

Scripps Research Celebrates 16th Commencement

By Mika Ono

On Friday, May 16, The Scripps Research Institute celebrated its commitment to excellence in education and research with its 16th commencement, which graduated 28 Ph.D. candidates and recognized Scripps Research trustee Claudia S. Luttrell with an honorary degree. Distinguished scientist Ernest Beutler, chair of the Department of Molecular and Experimental Medicine, delivered an inspiring keynote address.

The official ceremonies began with a winding march across the oceanside campus in the fresh morning air. Led by Scripps Research President Richard Lerner, the regal procession included not only Kellogg School of Science and Technology deans, honorary degree recipient, faculty advisors, and graduating students, but also fellow Kellogg School students and faculty members.

After the group arrived at the Neurosciences Institute Auditorium filled with the friends, family, and supporters of the graduating students, Lerner offered welcoming remarks and Professor Jeffery Kelly, dean of graduate studies, spoke on some of the factors making the Kellogg School exceptional.

A Powerful Mission

Kelly noted that, from its inception, the Scripps Research program was able to attract the very best students because of the power of its mission—to train the next generation of scientists as individuals capable of bringing together the principles of various scientific disciplines, in Kelly's words, "the skill set required to solve the complex problems of today and especially tomorrow."

"Innovation is the hallmark of this program," Kelly said.

The school's vigor is confirmed by stellar rankings from various organizations, including U.S. News & World Report, which continues to rank the Kellogg School among the top ten programs in both graduate biology and chemistry, based on the results of a survey sent to department heads and directors of graduate studies programs at universities throughout the country. An index of faculty productivity published in The Chronicle of Higher Education ranks the Kellogg School as best in the nation in biophysics, as well as second in immunology and seventh in biochemistry.

The Kellogg School, which first opened its doors on the La Jolla, California, campus in 1989, currently trains about 225 doctoral students, who attend classes, complete lab rotations, and write a dissertation that offers an original contribution to their field. The school can now boast of more than 300 accomplished alumni, including the 2008 graduates. Three of these alumni—two from this year's graduating class—conducted studies on the Scripps Florida campus, which accepted its first transfer students in 2005 and began accepting entering students in 2006.

"Our reputation as a first-rate research institute has significant meaning because of the remarkable quality of our faculty and the resources we make available to our students," said William R. Roush, associate dean for the Scripps Florida graduate school program, as well as professor of chemistry and executive director of medicinal chemistry at Scripps Florida, commenting before the ceremony but echoing Kelly's remarks. "This is a community of scholars, a place where there are no barriers to doing groundbreaking research."

This fall will bring a record number of entering students to both campuses. At Scripps Florida, an unprecedented 75 percent of offers extended to students were accepted—nine of 12 offers made. Of these nine students, four come from Florida universities and colleges.

Keys to Success

Beutler—an eminent scientist who has published more than 1,000 scientific papers, written more than 10 books, and made a host of discoveries, including X-inactivation, and novel treatments for Gaucher disease and several forms of leukemia—addressed the graduating students and others in the auditorium, speaking to the joys of a career in science, as well as its responsibilities.

He went on to say, however, that not everyone who enters the field succeeds. While there is no one magic formula, according to Beulter, hard work, honesty, and an astute choice of research topics are essential.

"I believe that the greatest error that young scientists make in choosing their first independent research projects is that they tend to run with the crowd," he said. "The tendency to merely elaborate on what many others are doing arises, at least in part, from the almost universal misconception that our understanding of nature is profound, that most or all of the basic concepts have already been discovered, and that success in science consists of filling in the blanks with large teams of collaborators...

"I stand here to tell you that much of what your teachers believe and have taught you is wrong—wrong in part and sometimes in whole," he continued. "One hundred years from now, your scientific progeny will be laughing at our naïve and incomplete understanding of nature at the beginning of the 21st century. When I started in science we thought we knew a lot:  DNA to RNA to protein. One gene, one protein. It had all been worked out. But no one had dreamed of introns, RNA editing, microRNA, or epigenetic imprinting. There is just as much waiting to be discovered in the years that lie ahead, and you should strive to make some of these totally unanticipated, fundamental discoveries.

"Your greatest enemies are dogma and consensus."

Remarkable Accomplishments

After Beutler concluded his remarks, congratulating the students and their families, each student was honored individually. Ph.D. advisors stepped up to the stage one by one to speak about each graduate's array of scientific and personal accomplishments. It was a talented crowd.

The 28 Ph.D. students in this year's graduating class represent fields from organic chemistry to molecular biology, and interests in topics from malaria to HIV. Their dissertations include titles such as: "NMR in Structural Biology and Structural Genomics: Target Protein Screening, Structures and Functions," "Proteomic and Bioinformatic Analyses of Parasitic Pathogens," and "Total Synthesis of Yatakemycin: Structure Revision, Analogue Studies and Biological Properties."

Members of the Scripps Research Class of '08 will work in both academia and industry, including at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Burnham Institute, La Jolla Institute of Allergy & Immunology, and Scripps Research, as well as Pfizer, Celldex Therapeutics, Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation, Exelixis, and Johnson & Johnson.

When Ph.D. degrees were officially conferred on the candidates, the audience burst into thunderous applause.

"A Special Role"

The commencement ceremony culminated in the granting of an honorary degree to Claudia Skaggs Luttrell, whose achievements include promoting scientific collaboration in her capacity as a member of the Scripps Research Board of Trustees, president of the Skaggs Institute for Research at Scripps Research, and chair of the Skaggs Oxford Scholarship Program, a joint academic training program at Scripps Research and Oxford University.

" It's an honor to recognize [Claudia Skaggs Luttrell] and what a special role her distinguished family has played," Lerner noted. "This program would not be what it is today without the generous support of the Skaggs family."

Kelly agreed, noting that the Skaggs family's "extraordinarily generous" gift of $100 million in 1996 helped transform Scripps Research into one of the leading biomedical research centers in the world.

After accepting her degree, Luttrell stepped up to the microphone to deliver some brief remarks that paid tribute to her father, Sam Skaggs, and reiterated her commitment to continuing his legacy and vision. Luttrell noted that her father was "one of the giants of corporate America," who took over the family business, an 11-store chain of drug stores, at the age of 26. Before his retirement in 1995, he had pioneered the first successful combination food and drug store—"literally changing the way Americans shop"—and built the company into one with more than 1,700 stores in 26 states and annual revenues of $22.2 billion. Luttrell noted that his record of philanthropy is also extensive.

"My father's philosophy is grounded in a strong belief that basic biomedical science should translate into new medicines to treat disease, new diagnostic tests, and new methods to prevent disease," Luttrell said. "This remarkable institute fulfils this philosophy by training the next generation of scientists, while at the same time contributing to the scientific knowledge base that in turn leads to new discoveries for drug targets and new biological markers for disease.

"I am very well aware that I am the next generation to carry on my father's legacy and vision into the future," she continued. "I am honored to accept this degree as a reflection of my belief in the importance of education and medical research and the results from these endeavors for the betterment of humankind. I am confident that, teamed together, we can and will continue to achieve biomedical milestones that further advance local healthcare and my father's vision."

Her words were greeted by a warm and enthusiastic reception.

When the faculty, students, graduates, family, friends, and supporters filed out of the auditorium, they encountered bright sunshine and a luncheon to further honor those receiving degrees that day.

For a complete list of the graduating students, their advisors, and their thesis topics, see 2008 Graduating Students. For more information on Luttrell, see A Brief Biography of Claudia Skaggs Luttrell. For more information on Beulter, see A Brief Biography of Ernest Beutler, M.D., recent News&Views article "Diamonds and Pearls," and his faculty web page.


Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu



A commitment to excellence. Click for slideshow.