High Hopes and Expectations About Tomorrow’s Science and Technology Challenge

5/27/08

(A commencement address to graduates of Eberly College of Science, Penn State University, delivered on May 17, 2008)

It is an honor to be asked to address you on this wonderful day of promise for an exciting future. As a Professor for the past 35 years, I understand the important achievement this day represents for this graduating class of Eberly College of Science. Led by a dedicated faculty, you have worked hard for four years and now are leaving this nurturing place for new challenges. This is fortunate, as the country intensely needs new graduates in science and mathematics. We are faced with major challenges about energy and the environment, continued advances in healthcare and its availability, and the increasing international interdependence of the world’s economies and wellbeing that only young people with your talents and training can surmount.

I do not want to give you the impression that you are through learning. You have just attained the tools to begin to learn. Almost all of the knowledge you use throughout your life, you will learn on your own in the future. Whether this occurs in graduate or professional schools or out in the marketplace, you will have to continue to acquire new knowledge and skills. Finding environments that provide opportunities and people who stimulate these learning processes is a major part of decision-making in your immediate future.

Over 40 years ago, I stood in a similar position as you are standing today. I had just obtained my PhD degree in theoretical chemistry from the University of Illinois and was faced with a career decision. I decided, after reading many journals and textbooks, that I wanted to become a scientist studying the then-new field of molecular biology. I had essentially no training in biology, but I did find a mentor at Caltech, Professor Norman Davidson, who was also making the transition from chemistry to molecular biology—and in that environment, I was able to rapidly learn the essentials. Since then, I have done research in cancer biology, virology, cell biology, immunology, and RNA chemistry, not to mention interactions with biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. In each of these cases, I had to again become a student, learning the essentials of the new field. There is nothing I enjoy more than learning something new and sharing this new knowledge with colleagues. When people ask me about the secret to my success, I answer that it is my curiosity that drives me to learn something new and use this knowledge to create something useful.

You are at a transition where decisions that influence the course of your career are about to be made. I have been advising students at MIT for many years, and each coming year seniors wander into my office seeking advice about possible career paths. We talk about possibilities. but I make it a rule not to ever strongly influence their decision on career choices. This decision has to be their own. I believe young students have a more valid vision of the future than I do. This philosophy, from the perspective of the student, is similar to a popular reframe during the 1960s: “never trust anyone over thirty with important decisions about your life.”

However, there is one aspect about the future that I do emphasize. Most people, particularly young people, underestimate the rate of change of society and science that will occur over the course of their career. Thus, in face of this uncertainty, how can one try to make wise decisions? The answer is that though the rate of change may be difficult to judge, you probably can see the major forces that will drive change globally over the next decades. These include the challenges mentioned above—increasing cost of energy, climate change, increasing demands for medical care—but I would add to these the rapid advances in technology and science, and particularly life sciences. These forces are important to recognize since they indicate where change will occur, and wherever there is “change” there is the opportunity to become the leader of this change.

As a means of illustrating the rate of change in science and technology, it is interesting to remember that a little over 50 years ago, Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, thus founding the field of molecular biology. Thirty years ago, we discovered how to synthesize new genes and use recombinant DNA to engineer organisms that could produce human insulin and other pharmaceuticals. A great alumnus of Penn State, and a personal friend, Professor Paul Berg of Stanford University, largely led this advancement in science. I had the pleasure a few years ago to present the inaugural lecture in the Berg Auditorium on your campus. Paul was present that day, making it special.

A great challenge of the next decade is managing the cost and availability of healthcare while encouraging continued development of new therapeutics and treatments. Some 14-15 percent of the GDP of this country is spent on healthcare. The rate of increase in the cost of healthcare has grown at twice the rate of inflation, and the demand for more healthcare is going to increase due to the nation’s demographics. Today, a significant fraction of the population is finding it difficult to afford healthcare insurance. At the same time that we need to constrain growth in the cost of healthcare and expand its availability, we are entering the moment in history where science has the most to offer for the development of new and more effective treatments. This new power comes from advancements in science such as sequencing of the human genome, advances in human genetics of disease processes, and better technologies to produce new types of drugs designed from human factors that control disease processes.

I can perhaps illustrate this by a summary of some of the products of a biotech company I co-founded in 1978, thirty years ago. It is the oldest freestanding biotech company, Biogen Idec. The company is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and employs about 5,000 people around the world. Since its establishment, its technology has been important in developing the hepatitis B vaccine, which most of you have had experience with; the first effective treatment for hepatitis B and C based on human alpha interferon; the first effective treatment for multiple sclerosis based on human beta interferon; more recently a new and more effective treatment for MS based on blocking cell trafficking; and through our merger with Idec, a highly effective treatment for adult B-cell lymphoma, Rituxan. These are new types of therapies for previously untreatable diseases.

In the biotechnology industry and university research laboratories there are currently more new drugs and treatments under development for previously untreatable diseases than ever before. In fact, I have been in cancer research for over 40 years, and we clearly have the most promising new therapies and technology under development now than at any earlier time. Most people do not realize that age-adjusted death due to cancer has decreased in this country over the past decade. Most researchers believe that this decrease in the rate of deaths due to cancer will accelerate over the next decades, largely eliminating this disease from young adults and middle-aged people. This does not mean that we will eliminate cancer for everyone. Cancer will remain a medical reality for older people, but even here, we hope to have more effective treatments that do not have the damaging side-effects of many types of current chemotherapies. There is clearly much still to be done, but the promise is there when viewed from the progress of current science and drug development.

Let me talk about one example where I believe new technologies and science will produce innovative treatments with perhaps lower costs. At MIT we are establishing an exciting new Institute, the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, combining engineering and molecular biology. The objectives of the Institute are to integrate engineering at the nano-scale with cancer biology to target new therapies, create new types of gene-specific drugs, and fabricate new microscale processes that can separate and analyze individual cells from the blood. In the latter case these could be cancer cells or immune cells that could indicate an impending disease long before it became a major problem—and at a time in which it could be treated with little hard intervention.

We consider this new combination of engineering and cell biology so promising that we have labeled it “the third revolution in life sciences research,” with the first being the birth of molecular biology with the discovery of the structure of DNA, and the second being the genomic revolution that began with the contribution of Paul Berg and continued with the sequencing of the human genome. The third revolution is the integration of engineering and molecular biology. This will not only change how we are able to investigate the workings of cells, but will also produce new treatments.

You, as graduates of Eberly College, stand on the threshold of an amazing transition in history. The world is shrinking, but the expectations that all of the world’s population in the future will have the lifestyle of the citizens of this country over the past century is something the world cannot accommodate. We are challenged with global warming, expensive energy, and many issues of societal justice. Mastering these challenges falls on your shoulders. I believe some of the answers to these challenges are in the continued advancement of technology and science, areas in which you are now leaders. We have high expectations of you, and we are sure you are up to the challenge.

Dr. Phillip A. Sharp is an Institute Professor at MIT, and formerly the director of the Institute's Center for Cancer Research, the head of its Department of Biology, and the founding director of the McGovern Institute. Dr. Sharp won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on "discontinuous genes" in mammalian cells. Follow @

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.