At the medical school’s commencement, Lucy Shapiro described how years of solitary work in the laboratory led her to influence public policy and battle the growing threat of infectious disease on the global stage.
June 15, 2015 - By Tracie White
Developmental biologist Lucy Shapiro, PhD, told the 2015 School of Medicine graduates how, as a basic scientist who spent most of her life studying single-celled bacteria, she stepped out of her laboratory and onto the global stage to try to help the world avert a potential disaster.
“About 15 years ago, I sat up and looked around me and found that we were in the midst of a perfect storm,” said Shapiro, the Virginia and D. K. Ludwig Professor, speaking at the school’s commencement June 13 on Alumni Green. “There was a global tide of emerging infectious diseases, rampant antibiotic and antiviral resistance amongst all pathogens and a poor to nonexistent drug pipeline.
“For me the alarm bells went off, and I was convinced that I had to try and do something. Let me tell you the story of how I stepped out of my comfort zone. I launched a one-woman attack.”
She took any speaking engagement she could get to educate the public about antibiotic resistance; walked the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., lobbying politicians about the dangers of emerging infectious diseases; and used discoveries from her lab on the single-celled Caulobacter bacterium to develop new, effective disease-fighting drugs.
Bench-to-bedside for a better world
A recipient of the National Medal of Science, Shapiro exhorted the graduates to be unafraid of breaking out of their comfort zones and to use science to improve the human condition. Bridging the gap between the lab and the clinic can make the world a better place, she said.
Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, also emphasized the importance of bench-to-bedside work in his remarks to the graduates. There has never been a better time for shepherding advances in basic research into the clinic, he said.
“You are beginning your careers at an unprecedented time of opportunities for biomedical science and for human health,” he said.
This year’s class of 195 graduates comprised 78 students who earned PhDs, 78 who earned medical degrees and 39 who earned master’s degrees. It included Katharina Sophia Volz, the first-ever graduate of the Interdepartmental Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine — the first doctoral program in the nation focusing on stem cell science and translating it to patient care.
Volz, whose work in the lab has opened the doors to improvements in clinical care for heart patients, said Stanford Medicine is the place to be for scientists who want to make a difference in the world.
“Everybody here is reaching for the stars. We can do the best work here of anywhere,” said Volz, 28, a native of Ulm, Germany, the birthplace of Albert Einstein. She has worked in 10 different labs across the globe. Her father and mother, Johannes and Luise Volz, traveled from Germany to celebrate with her.
“I’ve never been in a more supportive environment,” said Volz, who discovered the progenitors to the muscle layer around the coronary arteries, a finding with implications for regenerative medicine and finding treatments for coronary artery disease.
Well-wishers, garlands and fussy babies
Some in the crowd of well-wishers, seated under a giant white tent, held garlands of flowers for the graduates, while toddlers ran around the lawn and babies fussed and cried. The two student speakers added humor and pathos to the occasion, with memories of their years of hard work and discovery.
“I’d like to run one last experiment,” said Francisco Jose Emilio Gimenez, a PhD graduate in biomedical information. “Who here had serious doubts they would ever finish their PhD?”
The dozens of hands shooting up from the stage were followed by laughter from the crowd.
Meghan Galligan, a medical degree graduate, said she was both nervous to be in front of the crowd and concerned about whether her puffy black graduation cap would stay put. “I’m wearing a French pastry hat and worried it’s going to fall off,” she said.
Her years of education to become a physician changed the day she entered clinical care training. “From the day we started clinics, we would really never be the same as those bright-eyed individuals who gathered here for orientation,” she said. “How could we be after gaining such privileged access into the human condition?”
Role as government adviser
Shapiro’s desire to improve the human condition led her out of the lab to the nation’s capital. She has since served in advisory roles in the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush on the threat of infectious disease in developing countries. Now director of the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine at Stanford, Shapiro has been a faculty member since 1989. She was founding chair of the Department of Developmental Biology and also started a biotech company in Palo Alto to test and develop antibiotics and antifungals.
Her lab at Stanford made breakthroughs in understanding the genetic circuitry of simple cells, setting the stage for the development of new antibiotics. Shapiro told the audience that over the 25 years that she has worked at the School of Medicine, she has seen a major shift in the connection between those who conduct research in labs and those who care for patients in clinics.
“We have finally learned to talk to each other,” Shapiro said. “I’ve watched the convergence of basic research and clinical applications without the loss of curiosity-driven research in the lab or patient-focused care in the clinic.”
This new connection, she said, is key to the future of global health.
“This is no ordinary time, from shattering political unrest in the Middle East and North Africa and the consequent flood of immigrant populations that serves as a petri dish for infectious pathogens, to global shifts in urban environments, to climate change, which is having substantial impact on health ... all contributing to the appearance of old pathogens in new places and new pathogens for which we have no immunity.
“We here must care about an Ebola outbreak 8,000 miles away in West Africa; we here must care about a cholera outbreak in Haiti; we wait for the consequences of the earthquake in Nepal. We live in a global village.”
This is your time to shape the future, Shapiro told the graduates.
“Step out of your comfort zone and follow your intuition,” she said. “Don’t be afraid of taking chances. Ask, ‘How can I change what’s wrong?’ ”
In closing remarks, Laurie Weisberg, MD, president of the Stanford Medicine Alumni Association and clinical professor of medicine at UC San Francisco, also encouraged students to step outside of their comfort zone.
“You may be the most brilliant, creative and productive scientist, clinician, writer or entrepreneur, but you'll never know if you don't embrace uncertainty, take on a new challenge, and give it a try," she said. "To do what you love, and do it well, with all your heart — that's what most important.”
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