Incoming graduate students in the biosciences at Stanford were welcomed Sept. 24 with white lab coats bestowed by the Stanford Medicine Alumni Association.
September 26, 2018 - By Julie Greicius
Andy Renteria’s parents had never been on a plane before. But Renteria bought airline tickets to fly them from his rural hometown in Emporia, Kansas, to the Bay Area to join him at the PhD lab coat ceremony at the Stanford School of Medicine.
The ceremony, which was held Sept. 24 at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge, served as an official welcome for new graduate students in the Stanford Biosciences, which spans 17 different departments and interdisciplinary programs across the university.
“My journey to Stanford feels especially meaningful because I was able to get here despite certain disadvantages, which many students who are underrepresented in STEM, and grad school in general, also face,” said Renteria, using the acronym that denotes science, technology, engineering and mathematics.“I also personally feel emotional about being here because I know my parents are proud of me and the value I placed in my education to reach this point.”
William Talbot, PhD, the medical school’s senior associate dean of graduate education and postdoctoral affairs, welcomed the new students, their families and friends.
“We’re truly delighted that you have joined us, and we all hope that you share this excitement as you begin your journey,” Talbot said.
Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, was unable to attend the ceremony in person, but a video with his welcome message was played at the event. Minor described the white lab coat as a powerful symbol of commitment to “the better understanding of the most basic building blocks of life and of the foundational science that informs so much of what we do.” Breakthroughs in foundational science, Minor said, have the power not only to expand our understanding but “to open up whole new fields of research.”
‘Gatekeeper of truth and impartiality’
Lila Hope, PhD, president of the Stanford Medicine Alumni Association, told the students that their fellow alumni were there to support them. “Like everyone else here on campus, the alumni body is here for you as you go through your graduate school journey through multiple mentoring events, getting together, and just to be there for you and letting you know, even we made it despite what happened to us during grad school,” she quipped.
Hope then encouraged students to recognize themselves as the standard-bearers of science. “It’s important to remember as a member of the scientific community, you are the most crucial advocate, champion, safeguard and gatekeeper of truth and impartiality of your own experimental findings and scientific discoveries,” she said.
The ceremony’s alumnus speaker was David Bilder, who earned a PhD in developmental biology in 1997 at Stanford. Bilder, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California-Berkeley, echoed Hope’s point about the lab coat being a symbol of community.
“Community is not an instinctual value for many scientists,” Bilder said. “Many times in grad school, you’ll find yourself — it’s basically just you and the bench, maybe in some corner of the Beckman Center late at night, losing track of the world around you and just trying to figure out through your thoughts and experiments what nature is trying to say.”
And yet “knowing that you are a member of this larger community is really a profound experience,” Bilder said, adding that just by being a biologist, a student participates in the achievements of all biologists. That community, he said, begins with the circle of classmates on campus and extends to the circle of Stanford faculty out to the larger circle of scientists around the world, as well as into past centuries.
‘Seize this chance’
Students in the biosciences are entering “a spectacular field that is continuously revolutionizing itself, and it’s going to be immensely more interesting than you can even anticipate now, sitting in the seats where you are,” Bilder said.
Exhorting the incoming class to uphold the highest values of the scientific community, Bilder also told them “to work to expand this community, to promote opportunity and diversity within it, and to break down these really absurd ideas, traditional ideas, about who can or who cannot be a scientist.” He called on students to “seize this chance to do ambitious, risky and transformative research,” assuring them that “until you succeed, your community is here to sustain you.”
Sitting directly in front of her mother Katie Arnoldi, who had flown in from Southern California to cheer her on, incoming biology student Natalie Arnoldi was excited to start a new chapter at Stanford. Arnoldi, who in 2014 received both a bachelor’s degree in marine biology and master’s degree in oceanography and marine policy from Stanford, had spent her last four years pursuing her art career and showing her large oil paintings internationally.
“My dream is to mesh the two,” Arnoldi said. “It’s a myth that you have to choose between art and science. You can have it all.”
As students were introduced by their department chairs, they proceeded across the stage to be assisted into their lab coats by Talbot and Hope. Their classmates and loved ones in the audience applauded and shouted, and some held up handmade signs of support.
Naomi Lynn Haddock, who grew up in Honduras and Indiana, said she had always been “a bit star-struck about Stanford,” and worked hard to get here. Haddock said her white lab coat was “something tangible that shows I’m really here.” She said she was proud to be the first on the Honduran side of her family to attend graduate school, and that she plans to study infectious disease immunology and hopes to become a professor and serve as a mentor.
Renteria, the first in his family to attend college, said he wants to help others aspiring to study science. “Receiving my white coat represents an inflection point of sorts, in the sense that many people contributed to my ability to get here, and I’m reaching a point where I can start to figure out how to give back so others can reach their full potential as well,” he said. “I may not have my PhD yet, but I think I’m in a privileged position at Stanford to help others.”
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