First-year bioscience students welcomed as ‘new partners in discovery’

Chosen from a pool of 1,959 applicants, the 122 new Stanford graduate students in the biosciences have begun classes.

Will Talbot, the medical school’s senior associate dean for graduate education and postdoctoral affairs, helps Dirk Spencer into a lab coat Sept. 28 at a ceremony for first-year students in the biosciences. Theodore Leng, president of the Stanford Medicine Alumni Association, looks on.
Norbert von der Groeben

Dirk Spencer, future plant scientist, sat grinning nervously with his new white lab coat draped carefully across his knee, waiting for his life as a Stanford graduate student in biology to officially begin.

“We are here to celebrate a very important milestone,” said Will Talbot, PhD, professor and chair of developmental biology, and the School of Medicine’s senior associate dean for graduate education and postdoctoral affairs. Talbot addressed the crowd of first-year bioscience students, their families, friends and colleagues, seated in Berg Hall at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge. “We are here to welcome our new partners in discovery.”

Spencer, a 22-year-old from Brooklyn, was one of 122 new bioscience students chosen from an applicant pool of 1,959 who began classes Sept. 26. On Sept. 28, the students were awarded crisp, white lab coats during an annual ceremony welcoming them to their graduate-level studies at Stanford.

“All I know about the ceremony is I’m not supposed to put on the lab coat until I walk across the stage,” said Spencer, chatting before the start of the event about how his research interests in plant biology could have relevance for human health by solving problems related to nutrition and food security. He just wasn’t quite sure how yet.

Lloyd Minor, dean of the School of Medicine, shakes hands with new MD-PhD student Binbin Chen at the ceremony, which was held at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge.
Norbert von der Groeben

‘A formal start’

“It’s like a formal start to everything,” said another new graduate student, Ron Shanderson, an Atlanta native whose childhood love of dinosaurs morphed over time into an interest in cancer biology.

The students, who sat grouped together according to their departments, listened as Talbot welcomed them and introduced Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine.

“The key is this: Don’t become discouraged,” Minor said. “This is a game of the long haul. … What may seem like a small advance later may be one of the most impactful things that you’ve done in your life.”

Minor shared a quote by School of Medicine faculty member Michael Levitt, PhD, reflecting on his career after winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2013: “‘You never really have a single "Eureka" moment. There are a lot of small steps. Each time you solve a step, that’s great — but there’s another step. It’s really important not to give up.’"

Minor added, “In fact it was only in looking back at his science in his early years that he could understand how every step mattered. ... His research in the early 1980s directly led to a $40-billion industry in anti-cancer drugs.”

Receiving lab coats

As the speeches ended, the students lined up to receive their coats. Biochemistry students came first, followed by those in bioengineering, then biology, and so forth. Like all the other students, Spencer folded his white coat across his left arm and got in line, then walked across the stage, put on his new coat with help from Talbot, and shook the dean’s hand.

The crowd cheered as each student walked across the stage. Family members and friends took photos.

The key is this: Don’t become discouraged.

The new graduate students — 56 women and 66 men — are entering 14 different bioscience programs, such as biochemistry, neurociences and genetics. Eighteen already have advanced degrees, and 26 are considered underrepresented minorities in the biosciences. Twenty-six were born in countries outside the United States, including Panama, Hong Kong and Venezuela.

Spencer’s father, a plumber, and his mother, a babysitter, weren’t able to make it to the ceremony. Both his parents, who immigrated to the United States from the West Indies, were back home in New York. He said his grandfather made him promise he’d visit him in the West Indies when he graduated.

“When I told my parents I might be a plant scientist, my father wasn’t quite sure about it,” Spencer said. He said he’s both excited and overwhelmed by the opportunity to improve the future of human health through plant research.

As each of the various faculty members introduced their new students, and watched them put on their coats, they offered words of welcome.

“We look forward to seeing what you can do,” said Tony Ricci, PhD, professor of otolaryngology, who introduced the neurosciences students.

Students chatted and laughed as they left the building, heading out to take a group photo and join the dean for a reception and dinner on the Alumni Lawn.

They adjusted their new coats, some too big, some too small, some just right.

“We’re in now,” one student said as she walked outside. “They can’t take it back, right?” 

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