First-year graduate students in the biosciences donned lab coats provided by the Stanford Medicine Alumni Association at a ceremony marking the beginning of their studies.
September 29, 2021 - By Tracie White
When Celeste Diaz, a new graduate student in cancer biology, stepped off the elevator into the lobby of Berg Hall, in the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge, on Sept. 20, she was greeted by rows of crisp, white lab coats hanging on racks. All first-year students in the biosciences had one waiting for them, with their names embroidered on the coats’ left breasts.
“I’m just so happy to be here in person,” said Diaz, one of 164 new PhD and MD-PhD students who are entering a variety of Stanford departments and programs in the biosciences, such as biophysics, biology, immunology, stem cell biology and neurosciences. She was handed her coat, which she draped across her arm.
“I’m excited. I’ll be the first to get a doctorate in the family,” she said, adding that she was also the first in her family to graduate from college. “I’m a little sad that my family can’t be here for this.”
As with so many events since the outbreak of COVID-19, things were a bit different at this year’s lab coat ceremony, an annual celebration that marks the beginning of studies for first-year graduate students in the biosciences. Masks were worn. Family members and friends weren’t permitted to attend. Still, the excitement in the air was palpable. Last year’s ceremony was canceled because of the pandemic.
“Last year at this time, the sky was orange, and everyone was in 2D,” said Anthony Ricci, PhD, associate dean for graduate education and postdoctoral affairs, making a reference to the atmospheric effect of wildfire smoke in the Bay Area last fall. “This is a great way to get things started this year. I’m very happy.”
The event — a combination orientation, panel discussion and lab coat ceremony — kicked off with advice for the new students: Every day, remember that you belong here; don’t be afraid to embrace failure; seek advice and take initiative.
“It wasn’t easy starting grad school in the middle of a pandemic,” said Elysse Grossi-Soyster, a second-year student in microbiology and immunology, speaking to the audience via Zoom. She recommended that students make use of available free therapy sessions and take the time to prioritize health and wellness. And just go for it, she advised.
“I wrote in my graduate school applications that I was ‘a queer, punk-rock scientist who is here to make radical changes.’”
“What better time to be doing biomedical research than now?” he said. “We’ve just seen a powerful demonstration of the power of biomedical research and discovery in the development, in record time, of the first mRNA vaccines to be authorized in humans in the United States.”
The achievement was made possible, in large part, by the decades of basic research at major academic medical centers and research universities like Stanford, he said.
The students stood up and put on their lab coats, and the dean led them in the Stanford Biosciences Affirmation. They pledged to support the scientific process, respect the truth and always be cognizant that their work “is for the advancement of knowledge and the benefit of all humanity and our world.”
Sam Bollinger, 26, a first-year PhD student in cancer biology, spoke before the ceremony in the lobby about his journey to get to Stanford and become a scientist.
“I lost my mother to cancer when I was 18,” he said. “That’s what got me going in cancer biology.” Even though his dad, a chemistry professor and scientist in Pennsylvania, couldn’t be at the ceremony, Bollinger knew he was proud.
“I didn’t expect this ceremony,” Bollinger said. “But it’s a nice symbol. It feels more official now.”
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