School of Medicine's Bertozzi tells students to embrace this moment of change

In her commencement address to new graduates, Carolyn Bertozzi said: 'With your newfound status as a Stanford graduate comes the opportunity to make a difference.'

Carolyn Bertozzi gives the keynote speech at the Stanford School of Medicine's graduation ceremony.
Steve Fisch

Wow, what an incredible introduction. And an incredible honor for me and an amazing honor for me to share the stage with all of you.

I’ll join the other speakers - whose words were inspiring, thank you so much for sharing those thoughts  - in congratulating the class of 2023! Congratulations.

And also the people in the audience. You are their people, you are their friends, their family members, their supporters and without your enduring support, I’m sure that they would not be there today.

So those of you graduating, please join me in thanking all of your people for their support of you. Now, Dean Minor introduced me and explained to you that I am a chemist. I am the kind of chemist that studies biology and tries to invent new kinds of medicines. But I have an equally important job here at Stanford, which is that I teach undergraduate organic chemistry, which is a little bit paradoxical because people think of that class - undergraduate organic chemistry – as the class that actually keeps people out of medical school. OK, in case you didn’t know that.

You all made it through the gauntlet, so that’s great. You don’t have this bias against organic chemistry.

But I have learned in my life that most people outside the halls of academia don’t know much about what organic chemists do. So, let me share a little bit about us.

First of all, I fell in love with organic chemistry because of its importance in medicine and in biology. So, organic chemistry the subject that deals with the molecules of life. So, these are the molecules that work together to make cells, to make organs and tissues and ultimately to make your body function.  Organic chemists are the people that make new medicines, we make vaccines, we make biomaterials to implant into the body to fix tissues that are broken So, we provide the tools that many of these doctors will be using to help their patients.

And I think people don’t often know this about organic chemists. And I say that from experience. Because, when I poll a general audience and ask the simple question: Do you know an organic chemist? Can you name an organic chemist? And most people cannot name a real organic chemist but they have no trouble conjuring up a fictional organic chemist and Gaby introduced the subject of Netflix series so I feel comfortable in telling you who this chemist is…the notorious antihero Walter White.

So how many people, I’ll take a poll…how many people here know a real organic chemist? Hands up. Very few. How many people here know Walter White? Much, much more. No surprise at all.

For those of you who don’t know his character, he is in the Netflix series Breaking Bad. He plays an organic chemist who is a high school teacher but also a brilliant laboratory scientist who figures out how to make the world’s highest quality street methamphetamine. He becomes a drug lord, and (spoiler alert! – so block your ears if you haven’t watched the series yet and you want to but he) meets his demise. And it’s befittingly because it happens in his high-tech meth lab. Now, there was no Walter White when I was a student, so I didn’t have this view of what organic chemists do, fortunately.

When I started my career as an organic chemist back in my 20’s, I was thinking of the subject as the kind of subject that could save lives. And so, when I pursued an academic job as an independent person, and I joined the faculty back then at UC Berkeley (that’s the safety school that’s just a little bit north from here, and these colors  - these are the Berkeley colors, just in case you’re wondering if they ran out of black and red, and had to pull something else out of the closet). At that time, the practice of organic chemistry looked a lot like Breaking Bad – so what you see in that TV show, with glass vessels and bubbling chemicals in a laboratory with chemical fume hoods…that was what my lab looked like when I was in graduate school.  But when I started my job, I had a vision and a team of young students that shared that vision with me, which was to envision a future in which a person could do organic chemical reactions inside living systems – inside live cells, live animals in a laboratory, live human patients. And that was considered a bit of a maverick notion at the time. But I had enterprising students who were willing to take that journey with me and invent this new kind of chemistry that we called, as Dean Minor introduced, “bioorthogonal chemistry.” We came up with the idea, and we brought it to life.  

And so here I am, 25 years later, and the bioorthogonal chemistries that we invented way back then are now considered important tools for biological research, they’re in fact being used for new kinds of medicines that self-assemble inside the human body, which I don’t think even Walter White would have anticipated. And I think most importantly, the concept of bioorthogonal chemistry highlighted the power of interdisciplinary science. Because this literally was a chemistry for life. And to do that science, we had to bring together the concepts and the technologies from two different fields, from organic chemistry and from medicine. And back in the 1990’s when I started my independent research career, those disciplines did not have much of an intersection. Now, I think if you look back through the history of science and the history of medicine, you will agree with me that the magic often happens at the interface between disciplines – for example, between physical sciences and life sciences, between theory and experiment, between engineering (over there) and medicine (over here).  

And I will say, that after two decades at UC Berkeley and a very successful career there, when it comes to interdisciplinary science applied to human health, there is no comparison to Stanford University. OK, this is the place that stands alone as a world-class superpower in interdisciplinary science. And from this vantage point, under the tent, on this grass, you can see it with your own eyes because we have three life sciences Institutes that are within a minute from where you sit. They are called BioX (which is just on the back side of this tent), Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute (which is right across the street), and my own Institute, for which I moved to Stanford from Berkeley back in 2015, Sarafan ChEM-H. And I’m guessing that just about everyone sitting up here on this stage has been influenced in their education by one of these three interdisciplinary life sciences institutes. Raise your hand if you in some way benefitted from BioX, Wu Tsai or ChEM-H. You get your hands up right now, this is your chance. All right, thank you.

I hope that all of you who had your education here at Stanford were as inspired by the research in these Institutes and that you are transformed, as I have been transformed as well.  

So, let’s talk a bit about you, from the vantage point of what you look like to your faculty. From where we stand, you worked harder than any generation before you, you mastered subjects that were technically complicated and philosophically profound and it’s true that medical school, masters programs, PhD programs, these are steep mountains to climb in any generation, but this group had to do it against the headwinds of a global pandemic. The worst public health crisis in our lifetimes, and really in the past century.  So many of you arrive at Stanford ready to dedicate your lives to improving human health through science and patient care, but you probably did not anticipate how quickly you would be thrust onto the front line in basically, in the service of those pursuits.

Because back in 2020, we all remember, March rolled around, we had been watching the pandemic unfold first in China, then in Europe, then it landed here on American soil. And within a matter of weeks we went from wondering whether this was going to be a big deal for us to look at the world around us come to a grinding halt. Those of you who were fledging scientists and fledging healthcare workers were really at the front line and I watched as you step up and put your own individual concerns aside and take leadership roles. And for folks here in the audience, let me just tell you what these young people did.

Many of them staffed COVID-19 testing sites, that we had set up with tents over there. Many of you volunteered to collect blood samples from patients for clinical trials that we as quickly as possible launched off the ground here at Stanford.  Those of you who were in the research laboratories or doing computational work, you pivoted your research so that you could help figure out the science underlying SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. And I watched you gracefully bridge the divide between the science -- as it was unfolding in your hands, in real time -- and at the same time try to meet the urgent needs of patients.  You were tough, you were dedicated, you were resilient, creative, and you were compassionate.  And today, your graduation is nothing short of triumphant.

Now, the experiences that these young people had during the pandemic also gave them special insights. And these are insights that I hope you will take with you on your journey, wherever you’re going next. First of all, you witnessed the stark and devastating effects of inequality on human health.  Being surrounded by “essential workers” (that’s the phrase that we use), both as your peers and as your patients, you saw the death toll quickly skew toward those with fewer economic resources.  You witnessed the deadly consequences of systemic racism.  And you were called upon to defend science itself – especially vaccine science – in the wake of what I consider to be nothing short of political abuse.

And I hope these insights into social justice have enhanced your empathy toward disenfranchised people. Certainly, my own empathy has been enhanced in this way.  And for those of you that are the newly minted MDs, I hope that this awakening has bolstered your courage as you cross over from medical student to medical practitioner.  Because unfortunately, health care has become more politicized than it has ever been, in my lifetime at least.  Unlike many of your predecessors, you – for the first generation in some time - might find yourself literally blocked from delivering health care to some of your patients that need it most. Patients that need it desperately, for example women that need access to reproductive and abortion services…transgender youth who need access to health care. Because of forces that seem out of your direct control you may not be able to give care to your patients when they need it, regardless of the fact that the American Medical Association and other venerable bodies recommend that you do. So, you will need the courage to stand by your patients, to stand with them, to defend them and support them. And, if you wonder what that looks like, let me point you to one of the most recognizable faces of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Tony Fauci. Yeah, take a minute to thank Dr. Fauci for his service.

Now, people today in the wake of COVID-19 know Dr. Fauci as the Director of basically what’s called NIAID, it’s the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, it’s one of the Institutes at the NIH. He was the leader of the Coronavirus Task Force, first under two presidents: first President Trump, then President Biden. And we saw him on TV, and we saw him in the news, and he fought tirelessly to uphold principles of public health even when it was, in some circles, wildly, irrationally unpopular.

But people of a certain age in this audience, and I’m guessing now I’m maybe talking to your patents more so than to you, and these are the people of my generation. We knew Dr. Fauci before all of this because of his work with HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s and 1990’s. And if you ever want to read a case study in how prejudice can fuel inequality and deprive people of health, read about HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s.  Because in those early days HIV/AIDS was misconstrued as a disease of gay men, and gay men were  - even more so than today  - a stigmatized group of people that the public had very little empathy for.  And consequently, it was unpopular in government circles to advocate for investing taxpayers’ dollars, through federal grants like in NIH grants to support research into AIDS, and to support drug development and patient care. All of these things, when it came to HIV and AIDS were very unpopular in the 1980’s. 

And at that time, Tony Fauci in his mid 40s, so he was fairly early in his career as a public servant and as an infectious disease doctor. And he was tasked with leading an HIV research and treatment plan at the NIH.  And it’s incredible how much courage he displayed for a man of his age at the time. He had the courage to advocate for a greater public investment in AIDS research.  He collaborated, closely, with AIDS activists, with gay men who were infected with HIV, whose hands most politicians wouldn’t even shake. But, Dr. Fauci worked alongside these patient advocates to break down the barriers, get people access to healthcare, accelerate the approval of new medicines (by fast tracking them through the FDA) and basically save lives. But to do this, he had to put his career, literally, on the line.  And this took a lot of courage for someone who really could have scarified his own career.

Now in the end, Dr. Fauci created what I think of as a new template for bringing patient advocates into the decision-making circles.  He found a way to get patients access to the care that they needed so that today if a person who had HIV or AIDS in the 1980s and 90’s and managed to survive into the mid-90’s, that person had access to a new wave of medicines that can now extend their life well into their 60’s or 70’s, really a normal lifespan is on the table for a person with HIV. And I can tell you, as someone who was a young adult during the 80’s, we never could have foreseen that kind of progress.

So, when I think of Tony Fauci walking through fire alongside his patients, who were stigmatized at the time, it reminds me that one person can make a difference, and especially when that one person is a doctor who prioritizes their patients and remains true to their principles, even when they are unpopular.

So here you are, about to leave Stanford, some with an MD, some with a PhD, some with Masters’ degrees and some of you over achievers have combinations of these degrees, congratulations.  With your newfound status as a Stanford graduate comes the opportunity to make a difference.  And there are so many ways in which I need these young people flexing this new muscle that they have. Some of them improve human health one patient at a time.  Others will push forward the frontiers of science in the laboratory setting…others still will help to translate discoveries from laboratories into the clinic.  And they may sponsor clinical trials and recruit patients to benefit from new medicines. Many of these people will contribute by educating the public about health, and about science and some of them may even work as public servants, improving human health at the global scale. 

But regardless of your destiny, your life is about to change as you transform from student to professional.  And in this regard, you share much in common with organic chemistry.  Because, as the great Walter White once said, “technically chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change.”  And just as with a chemical transformation, you may have an idea product will become, some of you with become a product you didn’t anticipate, that’s the fun of organic chemistry, sometimes we get surprised by the products of our reactions. But regardless of that, all of us will be so proud of you for sticking to your principles and trying to make human health equitable for everybody.

So with that, I am very proud to share this celebration, congratulations class of 2023 and best wishes all of you for a healthy future. Cheers.

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2024 ISSUE 1

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