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Commencement Remarks: Lessons for the Future
Class of '16



Commencement Remarks: Lessons for the Future

Phillip Sharp, Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, delivered the following remarks on May 20, 2016, at The Scripps Research Institute’s commencement ceremonies.

It is an honor to be selected for an honorary degree from The Scripps Research Institute. First, I want to congratulate the graduates for their exciting research and hard work. I also think it is important to congratulate their partners, parents and faculty who supported them. Scripps has had a long history of outstanding biomedical science and leadership in research. Its history of education as a degree granting institution is more recent, starting only 27 years ago. In this short time, it has grown to rank among the top ten in the country in Chemistry and Biology. I also congratulate Scripps and you as graduating students on this achievement.

Chemistry and Biology are two subjects that I love, having a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from the University of Illinois, and having held an academic appointment in the Biology Department at MIT for the past 40 years. Fortunately, during my tenure as Head of the Biology Department no one asked about my credentials. My total education in Biology was a freshman course.

The lesson here is that most of what you, as new graduates, will need to know during your careers, you will learn after this ceremony. This degree is not the end of learning, it is only the beginning. The second lesson is that you have chosen the most rapidly changing and important field of science, Biology, for your profession. Each future decade will require you to reinvent your research by learning new subjects and technology. Further, biological science is key to meeting many of the great future challenges of society. The demands are formidable, but the excellence of your experiences at Scripps has prepared you well.

Perhaps an outline of my progression from Chemistry to Biology will reveal some lessons. I made the transition from Chemistry to Molecular Biology when I joined Professor Norman Davidson’s laboratory at Caltech in 1969 as a post-doctoral fellow. This was motivated by reading several books about research on the physical and biological properties of DNA and realizing how little was really known about chromosomes and genes.

Norman was an outstanding chemist who had begun research on DNA about a decade earlier. My objective in joining his lab was to begin research into the molecular biology of gene structures and regulation. However, there was a difference in objectives: Norman was interested in chromosome structure.

We found common ground in applying electron microscopy to map genes on a bacteria genome. This was an early example of what we now call genomics. In fact, in publishing the results, the term kilobase or KB was first introduced into the literature. My research at Caltech was greatly aided by Ron Davis, now a professor at Stanford, who pioneered the methodology of chromosome mapping as a graduate student in Norman’s lab. Although my research was quite successful with several major papers, I found that Chemistry departments across the country were not interested in molecular Biology. Hence, I needed to find a position to further my movement into biological sciences.

A letter and conversation with Jim Watson, of Watson and Crick fame, at the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory led to a position as a senior post-doctoral fellow for a year; that then became a staff position. DNA tumor virology became my major interest at this time both because of its relationship to cancer and also as an entry point for investigation of gene activity in human cells. I recognized that changes in gene expression were fundamental to cancer and our limited understanding of the biochemistry of gene regulation hindered progress in medicine. After three years at CSH where I extensively collaborated with Joe Sambrook, I accepted a position in the Cancer Center at MIT. Salvador Luria was Director of the Center and David Baltimore was a colleague down the hall; a wonderful environment for research in cell Biology. Both Luria and Baltimore won Nobel Prizes, Baltimore in 1975 one year after I moved to MIT and there was a great party.

Three years later, in 1977, I combined DNA tumor virology from research at CSH, with electron microscopy technology from Caltech to discover the split gene structure with exons, introns and RNA splicing. I was 33 at the time, before most scientists these days get their first federal grant. As you know, currently most newly independent scientists are 40 years of age when they first receive a federal grant. This is a major problem as newly emerging scientists see the future more clearly and are the most likely to make fundamentally new discoveries, particularly in life sciences. This country is limiting the brightest and the best by not providing more funding for this group.

Other than the individual lessons of believing in yourself and taking risks in following you dreams, there are two lessons in this story. First, surrounding yourself with brilliant and accomplished scientists creates an environment of expectation and excitement that elevates the research and discoveries. You as graduate students of Scripps have had work in a similar environment. Some examples in my case are Norman Davidson and Ron Davis at Caltech, Jim Watson and Joe Sambrook at CSH and Salvador Luria and David Baltimore at MIT. As you might guess, it is easy to do great science at MIT. I feel lucky every time I walk into my lab and my goal as a senior faculty member is to pass on this thrill to junior colleagues. Second, the combination of different scientific disciplines, in my case Chemistry and Cell Biology, can empower discovery research. I would not have made the discovery of split genes without asking the question “What is a gene?” that has its origins in Chemistry in addition to the question “How do genes cause cancer?” that has its origins in Cell Biology.

As is clear from the above story, the exciting environment for my career was academic in nature. There was no biotechnology in the early 1970s and essentially no employment for molecular biologists in the private sector. Today this is very different. Some of the most exciting research environments are now in the private sector. You, as new graduates of Scripps, have more interesting choices: private sector, academia or other. These are not “alternative careers” when viewed relative to an academic career. In many cases, an individual scientist can now have a larger impact on society through a private sector career.

The merging of diverse disciplines into life sciences is one of my current interests. My early career was a merging of Chemistry and Biology. Five years ago, a group of engineers and scientists at MIT introduced in a white paper the term "Convergence" to highlight the future importance of the integration of engineering, computational, mathematical and physical scientists into life sciences. Surprisingly, only 3% of all NIH principal investigators have appointments in Departments of Engineering, Mathematics or Physics. Further, no federal agency is supporting at a significant level engineering in life sciences. The NSF supports most of the engineering science in the country but its budget in this domain is minuscule. We will not be able to deal with the complexity of life systems without the engagement or Convergence of these disciplines, particularly engineering into life sciences.

I will close these comments with a brief discussion of what I see as some of society’s greatest challenges and some thoughts about important issues in confronting them. These challenges are growing in number and difficulty every day while at the same time there is a growing lack of trust of federal policies and the wish for dramatic change. An obvious indication of the demand for change is the amazing political primary battles this spring. Simply speaking, the country is split between populism on the left with socialism and populism on the right with isolationism. As part of this, I also think the country is questioning the value of continued support of science and technology, and the commitment to translate these into innovations that benefit society. Science, technology and innovation are sources of much of our economy and standard of living, yet as far as I am aware, these topics have not been significantly discussed during the campaigns. Without sustained investment in these endeavors, the world has little chance of facing the challenges of the coming decades.

Some of the challenges facing the world are access to food security, education and healthcare, not to mention climate change. These are issues important to every individual and advances in knowledge and technology are essential for progress. In spite of this need, there has been a decrease in the federal budget supporting biomedical research and technology over the past eight years. Less research means fewer discoveries, fewer students educated and less capacity for innovation.

We have discussed challenges, or unmet needs, but what are the forces driving these challenges, and will they change? The major forces driving the need for continued innovations are primarily twofold: continued projected growth in the world population and continued expectations of an increase in the living standards by much of the population.

As I described in my AAAS Presidential Address in 2014 and is more true today, the world will be considerably changed by mid-century. Within the lifetime of our children and grandchildren, Earth will have around 9 billion inhabitants, and each person will need to be fed from a square of arable land about two football fields in size. Further, inequities in standards of living between developed and underdeveloped countries must continue to diminish, with increasing demand for food, energy and better health care. Over the past several decades emerging nations like India and China have used innovation-based growth to enable the movement of billions of people into the global middle class. This will need to continue for many decades into the future. But as the world is calling for more consumption, we are facing global warming, with increasing accumulation of heat-retaining gases and further stress on the environment.

While scientific discovery and technological innovation have enabled innumerable advances, including a higher quality of life, many view the global challenges facing us as products of past advancement in science. This is somewhat true, however, we have no choice but continue to depend on innovation or relapse into a dark future. Inequality in standards of living and lack of security are creating tension and chaos around the world with displacement of large populations. This will be more common a decade from now. This can only be managed with better food security along with expansion in education and healthcare, all of which depend on economy advancement. This society has a remarkable record of producing innovations, creating jobs and enhancing the quality of life. It is more needed today than at any time in the past. This means that you, as young accomplished scientists, are more needed today than ever before.

On this wonderful ceremonial day, I finish with the charge that this is really your job as graduates of one of the elite institutions in the world. You are privileged; you are gifted; and you have learned how to use your gifts to create new knowledge and technology. Your job now is to learn how to use this education and opportunity to solve the future challenges of the world.  I wish you “Good luck.”

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Professor Phillip Sharp won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for “discoveries of split genes."