David Ho MD - 1998 MIT Commencement Address

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MODERATOR: I am pleased to welcome to the platform William J. Clinton, President of the United States; Dr. David D. Ho, graduate of the Harvard MIT division of Health Science and Technology, professor at Rockefeller University, scientific director and chief executive officer of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center and 1996 Time magazine Man of the Year; and the Honorable Francis J. Duehay, mayor of the city of Cambridge. Dr. Ho will now give his address.


HO: Thank you. It's great to be back. Good morning, President Clinton, Mayor Duehay, President Vest, Mr. D'Arbeloff, members of the MIT Corporation and faculty. To the graduates and their families and friends, my heartfelt congratulations-- it is indeed a momentous day in your lives.

What an incredible honor it is for me to return to MIT as a commencement speaker. As a young immigrant boy growing up in Southern California, I was awed by this august institution from afar. My love for science was inspired by the genius of extraordinary men like Feynmann, Luria, Baltimore, and Ting, whose presence, at one time or another, graced this campus.

Later, it was within the Harvard MIT Health Sciences and Technology program where my clinical skills were honed, where my scientific interests were solidified, and where I truly learned to tackle research with a multi-disciplinary approach, not limited by arbitrary boundaries that separate biomedical sciences from physics, chemistry, engineering, and mathematics. I will forever be indebted to you.

I'm here today because I've been given a great deal of praise and recognition for recent advances made in AIDS research. Achievements in research seldom belong to a single individual. Science is a richly collaborative endeavor and my personal recognition is merely symbolic for the many important discoveries and contributions made by a cadre of talented scientists in the field. As Newton aptly put it in a letter to Robert Hook, "If I had seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulder of giants."

The recent media attention focused on age research has provided a unique opportunity to educate the public at large about a plague of staggering dimensions and to advocate to our leader a proper course of action. It is also gratifying to see that the media is willing, on occasions, to prominently feature scientists with accomplishments that move our society forward. However, on a personal note, I find the spotlight is hot enough to bake. And as scientists-- as Einstein had cautioned, "The only way to avoid the corruption of praise is to keep on working."

I feel extremely privileged to work on AIDS. As a young physician in Los Angeles in 1981, I was fortunate enough to witness the beginning of the visible part of the epidemic. Over the course of a year, young men, one after another, presented to the hospital with a multitude of infections, leading to death within days to weeks. It was evident that their immune system was damaged. But by what?

Their medical history strongly suggested the possibility of a sexually transmitted agent that caused immunodeficiency. And yet, any description of a similar syndrome was nowhere to be found in the medical literature. The disease was obviously new. In this manner, AIDS appeared insidiously and mystified doctors and scientists alike. No one could have predicted that 17 years later we would face a global epidemic of HIV infection that is arguably the plague of the Millennium.

Today, HIV continues to spread at an alarming rate of 16,000 new cases per day. And more than 50 million infections are expected by the year 2000. For a biomedical scientist, what could represent a greater opportunity than to conduct research on a lethal microbe that threatens the health of the entire world? Members of the class of '98, as you move on in life, be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that have bubbled up by serendipity. Then have the courage and conviction in pursuing your goals and ideals.

In science and engineering, you have chosen noble professions, ones filled with excitement. Nothing is more thrilling to me than the process of scientific discovery. When the wonder of nature is revealed, one is left breathless and awestruck.

Imagine the joy and intellectual satisfaction when the constant expansion of our vast universe was discovered, when the complex nature of the chemical bond was understood, or when the double helical structure of DNA was solved. Imagine the excitement that must have pervaded this campus when the synthesis of DNA was achieved from an RNA template. Imagine, as well, the fruits of science, the sense of accomplishment in those engineers when an electrical current was transformed into light, when sound waves were transmitted across long distances in a wire, or when a cushion of air was harvested to send men soaring into the sky.

Allow me a more modest, but personal, anecdote. Beginning in '91, my colleagues and I had the privilege of working with structural biologists and medicinal chemists to test small chemicals that might intercalate into the catalytic site of the HIV protease, an enzyme essential for the production of infectious progeny virus. So overwhelming was the excitement that overtook us when substances were found to potently inhibit this enzyme, thereby blocking viral replication in the test tube.

Three years later, we again had the privilege of being the first to administer one of these chemicals to infected patients. Unmatched were the joy and amazement as we watched the level of HIV fall ever so dramatically. At first, little did we know that we were sitting on top of a fundamental discovery in AIDS research.

But shortly thereafter, by simply asking why does the virus fall, and why does it fall in that manner, it quickly dawned on us that HIV must be turning over rapidly in a very dynamic equilibrium with a host. Using data from patients, working with mathematicians, we proved HIV replication in the patient was rapid and remorseless.

In the course of only a few weeks, the old paradigm that HIV was largely a latent virus was completely shattered. So incredible was the ensuing intellectual satisfaction that I now fully appreciate the meaning of a line in a book, The Ascendant Man. It reads, "When the answers are simple, then you hear God thinking."

Despite the breakneck speed of scientific discovery in the field, AIDS patients already faced a decade and a half of horror and disappointment. But because of science there is hope. In the past two years, with new knowledge and new therapy, it has become possible to control HIV so effectively that the virus is no longer detectable in the infected person.

This dramatic attack is associated with a substantial clinical benefit to the patient. For the first time in this dreadful epidemic, the tide has begun to turn against the virus. Although a cure is still not in hand, as stated in Time magazine, the worst fear, the one that seeded a decade with this fear, the foreboding sense that the AIDS virus might be invincible has finally been subdued. After years of cursing the darkness of AIDS, a candle of hope has been lit by science.

AIDS, however, is not over. Worldwide, most infected persons cannot access the promising new therapies and much remains to be done in controlling the spread of this epidemic. It is my deepest hope that the recent scientific advances will inspire government, academia, and the private sector to remain vigilant and to redouble our efforts to bring an end to this tragedy. Prevention is the ultimate key to controlling the epidemic and vaccine science must now take center stage, as was declared by President Clinton last year.

Recently my thoughts had taken me on a number of self-reflective journeys. Let me humbly share a few with the graduates. In our experiments attempting to eliminate HIV from an infected person, I've learned that success in research, as is the case in most endeavors, requires bold decision making and a willingness to take informed risks.

As so eloquently stated by Harrow Shapiro of Princeton, "An excessive zeal to avoid all risks is, in the end, an acceptance of mediocrity and an abdication of leadership." Graduates, you must take on the toughest challenge, but view it as the greatest opportunity. For every noble work is, at first, seemingly impossible. Heed the wise words of Teddy Roosevelt before the turn of the century, "Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in the great twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

More and more I've also reflected on the role of science in our society. I'm disturbed by the public's indifference to what we do as scientists and engineers. As children, we all began with a real zest for science. We were curious and provocative, and insightful questions blurted out constantly.

However, by early adulthood, this proclivity to science and the joy of discovery have somehow dissipated in most, only to be replaced by science phobia. Consequently, it is not surprising that our society has often stereotyped, unflatteringly, those scientists and engineers who carry out incomprehensible lines of work.

Edison, Bell, and the Wright brothers would be today's nerds, even though the products of their ingenuity have made our world better. I'm particularly saddened by the fact that many of my personal heroes in science are virtual unknowns to a typical citizen. While certain dubious characters are universally recognized and often glorified by our society.

As scientists and engineers, we must change this by learning to present our work in both interesting and understandable ways. Indeed, it is our responsibility to bring back that spark, the sense of wonder about nature, that lies within every citizen. I'm equally troubled by this society's lack of commitment to research in basic science. A former president said in a campaign speech, why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity? The simple, but naive question speaks volumes of the lack of appreciation of the richness that uninhibited fundamental research has brought us.

Carl Sagan said it best when he wrote, "Maxwell wasn't thinking of radio, radar, and television when he first scratched out the fundamental equations of electromagnetism. Newton wasn't dreaming of space flights or communications satellites when he first understood the motion of the moon. Roentgen wasn't contemplating medical diagnosis when he investigated a penetrating radiation so mysterious he called it x-rays.

Curie wasn't thinking of cancer therapy when she painstakingly extracted minute amounts of radium from tons of pitchblende. Fleming wasn't planning on saving lives of millions with antibiotics when he noticed a circle free of bacteria around a growth of mold. Watson and Crick weren't imagining the cure of genetic diseases when they puzzled over the X-ray diffraction pattern of DNA."

These discoveries and a multitude of others that graced and characterized our time were made, ultimately, by scientists given the opportunity to explore what in their opinions were basic questions and nature. Cutting off fundamental, curiosity driven science is like eating the seed corn. George Washington said in 1790, "there is nothing which can better deserve our patronage than the promotion of science. Knowledge is, in every country, the surest basis of public happiness."

Graduates, in the best tradition of MIT, always maintain unwaveringly a deep commitment to excellence. As you enter a career in science or engineering, stay in the forefront of your chosen field, and never permit the excellence of your work to be compromised. Believe in what you are doing.

As Max Planck said, "Over the entrance of the gates to the temple of science are written the words, ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientists cannot dispense with."

I remember with a great deal of fondness my mates from the class of '74. Just like you, what a bunch they were. Stay young at heart, but should you need to grow, do not suppress your individuality and insist on conformity. "Continue to let imagination and creativity percolate throughout your lives, for every great advance in science has issued from the new audacity of imagination," said John Dewey.

I also reflected on the contribution of my heritage to my career. Were it not for the profound Asian respect for intellectual achievements and scholarly endeavors, a scientist I might not be today. Moreover, values of drive, dedication, imprinted during early childhood have continued to serve me well. In any culture, there's simply no substitute for hard work.

I've been an American for so long that I often forget that I'm also an immigrant. From time to time, I could still sense the desire that burns in the belly of a new immigrant, the desire to carve out a place in the new world, in the land of opportunities. To this day, I maintain an underdog mentality that motivates me to a higher level of work ethics.

Let me begin to close with a comment. Throughout its history, Americans continue to benefit from the drive labor and creativity of immigrants, many in the field of science and engineering. Just look among the graduates this morning. Thus, today, one prevailing view that immigrants constitute a constant drain on our society is simply baseless, wrong, and shameful, particularly in this nation of immigrants.


Graduates, as future scientists and engineers, it is likely that you will, on occasions, be underappreciated, under recognized, and more likely, underpaid by our society.


You will have to take solace and satisfaction in knowing that your work has helped to build a better, safer, healthier, and richer world, a world with hope. Members of the class of '98, it matters not whether you work on numbers, atoms, molecules, machines, organisms, the Earth, or the cosmos. Through science and technology, any one of you can cast a giant shadow on our planet. Congratulations, and don't forget to thank your parents.