Commencement 2000

This year marks Sarah Lawrence College's 71st commencement. A total of 279 Bachelor of Arts degrees were awarded to undergraduate students and 120 graduate students received their Master's Degrees. Sarah Lawrence welcomed back alumnus Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, internationally renowned neurobiologist and expert in pathogen discovery, as commencement speaker.

Recent Quotes From This Year's Graduating Class:

"Sarah Lawrence felt like the place for me right from the start. I totally opened up. I have learned that I have no limitations and am free to make a difference in this world."

"Sarah Lawrence: Talk about a workout - what a great reward at the end of the experience. We really can say we did something with ourselves—we achieved a great education."

"The style of education lets you feel free to express your opinions and explore new avenues that are personal to you through Sarah Lawrences resources."

"The excellent faculty assist you in focusing and developing your ideas and cultivating them with greater depth. This will allow me to use these skills in whatever occupation I choose. My future is open."

"After four years of fiction workshops, there is no opinion or idea that I am unable to express."

W. Ian LipkinSarah Lawrence Commencement Address by W. Ian Lipkin

On behalf of faculty, family, friends and the greater Sarah Lawrence community I am delighted to congratulate you for what you have achieved here during the past 4 years. As a fellow alumnus let me also congratulate you for the original decision to select membership in this extraordinary community. The significance of your decision will become increasingly evident as you reflect over time. I am not speaking only of the wistful reminiscences that you would have anywhere but rather of the legacy of eclecticism, tolerance, and excellence that is the essence of Sarah Lawrence and the foundation for continuity as our culture evolves.

Commencement speeches should have a theme that condenses a lot of enduringly useful information into a convenient travel sized package. I will try not to disappoint you. Those in the audience over 40, and many more of you through the magic of video, will remember a scene in "The Graduate" where a young Dustin Hoffman is pulled into a corner and given a single word of advice for planning his future: "Plastics." Here the term was used pejoratively as a noun to describe what was shallow and disposable in middle America in the late 60s. Nonetheless, it is good advice. I, too, will distill my vision for the future into the term "plastic." However, I will use the word in its original sense, as an adjective implying the capacity to be molded or the ability to create. The correlate from the field of brain research is the term plasticity, meaning the capacity to respond to the environment. If I have learned anything immutable during the course of 47 years on this planet it is that change is inevitable. The choice therefore is to learn how to embrace change by stretching or to tear. The good news is that education at Sarah Lawrence is focused on process as much as content; thus, you are poised to remain flexible and thrive in a world where the rate of change is accelerating. During the next few minutes we have together I will try to illustrate general and practical principles using examples from my own experiences.

Sarah Lawrence is well represented in the arts and humanities but there are few graduates in the biological and physical sciences. I expect that I was selected as a commencement speaker this year because there is a new emphasis on the hard sciences here. A question I am frequently asked is how I became a scientist-I suspect the question people really want to ask is why I did so or why I chose SLC if my goal was to pursue a career in biomedical research. The answer of course is that while many of us make plans, events have a way of transforming those plans. If we are plastic we view these changes as opportunities rather than inconveniences. When I started at Sarah Lawrence in 1970 I was interested in mythology, philosophy, and cultural anthropology. Does the fact that I spend most of my time now isolating and characterizing viruses or animal models of human diseases mean that this was effort poorly invested? Not at all. Many of the concepts I now use daily in molecular biology and neuroscience are rooted in lessons learned by reading Hegel, Levi-Strauss, and Thomas Kuhn. Perhaps the most important of these is that models are constructs that must be adapted with accumulation of new data. Having an historical perspective on how paradigms emerge has encouraged me to take on projects others thought undoable and to recognize that research is most exciting when the facts (or data) don't quite fit.

In the early 1980s while a neurology resident in San Francisco I was privileged to witness two paradigm shifts in infectious diseases that set the stage for my career in pathogen discovery. The first was the introduction of AIDS. The implications of this virus for clinical medicine, politics, economics and culture are only beginning to be appreciated. As bad as this disease has been for us in the developed world, its devastation in subsaharan Africa has been far worse, where an entire generation of adults has been lost and children are maturing without education or a coherent social structure. I was in the trenches as the disease was recognized and closely followed theories of pathogenesis as they evolved from recreational drug toxicity and immune system exhaustion to HIV. The notion that a virus could cause a slow decline in intellectual function, AIDS dementia, as well as a wide range of other bizarre neurologic syndromes was fascinating and prompted me to take additional training in neurovirology. The second paradigm shift was the discovery of prions. Not only did the notion that a protein could carry the information necessary for its own replication challenge a central dogma of molecular biology it also reinforced the concept that infectious agents could cause neurodegenerative disorders. Whether BSE/Mad Cow Disease or related diseases will ultimately affect a few or tens of thousands of people remains to be seen; nonetheless, I was personally and professionally inspired by the fearlessness and determination with which Prusiner, who ultimately received a Nobel Prize for his work, pursued an iconoclastic hypothesis in the face of public ridicule.

In 1985 while a fellow at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla I read a paper that suggested some neuropsychiatric diseases were due to infection with an unknown virus. Failures to isolate this virus using traditional methods led me to adopt unconventional ones. Listening to my muse I dropped safer projects and focused fully on this new problem. The identification of Bornavirus nucleic acids in 1989 demonstrated the power of molecular technology for pathogen discovery and provided the resources required to launch a research program focused on emerging infectious diseases at the University of California. During the past decade we have recruited an extraordinary international faculty comprised of creative, dedicated individuals who are not inhibited in their criticism of the lab director or one another, love the chase, and happily challenge and overturn doctrines and protocols. I had no doubt that our team would succeed when we were asked by New York State last September to isolate the causative agent of encephalitis, establish diagnostic tests, or find antiviral drugs for treatment of infection.

Much attention has been directed to the emergence and reemergence of acute infectious diseases like West Nile virus encephalitis. Responsible factors include enhanced international travel and trade, increasing population density, deforestation and enhanced interaction of humans and wildlife, and perhaps global warming. Some pundits are also concerned about bioterrorism. We are both creating instruments and reagents with which to rapidly identify infectious agents and actively pursuing surveillance in regions of the globe where new microbes are anticipated to appear. As proud as I am of this work and our contributions to recognition and control of West Nile virus, I also appreciate that capturing such low hanging fruit is straightforward in comparison with other projects now initiating in infectious diseases. Here I am referring to investigating the role of microbial agents in the pathogenesis of cancer, rheumatologic, cardiovascular, endocrine, and central nervous system disorders. There is mounting evidence to indicate that microbes and even vaccines can cause disease via cryptic infection, hit and run mechanisms, or eliciting immune responses that crossreact with normal tissues to induce autoimmunity. I am convinced that the application of pathogen discovery technology to chronic diseases will reveal discoveries as important as those promised by the genome project. Indeed, when we hear arguments favoring the role of genes or environment in behavior or disease we must recall that the nature-nurture dialectic has been argued for millennia. Biomedical research will increasingly require flexibility in thinking and a capacity for synthesis.

1999 was my 25th reunion since graduation. I enjoyed song night, learned to juggle, read the Decameron with Judy Serafini-Sauli and found parallels between the disruption in social fabric associated with plague in the 14th century and AIDS in our own, and had breakfast with Ilya Wachs and Oliver Twist. I held a seminar on how viruses and bacteria cause disease and described the methods and reasoning used to implicate infectious agents in disease and steps required to create vaccines and antibiotics. I shared a bathroom in Titsworth with a graduate from the class of '44. Neither of us felt there was anything unusual in the room assignment. The previous year I was privileged to participate with Joanne Braxton and Susan Meiselas in a panel discussion on creativity honoring then new President Myers where we ran the gamut from history to politics to neurobiology and discovered similarities in motivation and process. Where else but Sarah Lawrence could one indulge in such an smorgasbord of experiences. Given your talent, energy, and potential for achievement I am certain that your reunion in 2025 will also be extraordinary.

I will close with some practical advice: Floss. Use sunscreen. Read the NYT Science Times on Tuesdays and the Book Review on Sundays. Do crossword puzzles. Exercise. There is increasing evidence that mental and physical exercise preserve brain function and enhance immunity. Take vitamins in moderation. Although there are no data at present to indicate that vitamin supplements are beneficial to normal individuals in the prime of life it will take fifty years to do the studies required to assess whether consistent use of anti-oxidants and mineral supplements will stave off such infirmities as dementia, Parkinsons disease, or osteoporosis. Keep a pet. Maintain a long term relationship with a partner. Both have been shown to increase life span and emotional well being. Work and play with people who are smarter than you are. Encourage and welcome criticism. Stay plastic.

W. Ian Lipkin
Bronxville, NY
May 2000

W. Ian Lipkin, MD
Professor Neurology, Anatomy & Neurobiology, Microbiology & Molecular Genetics
Emerging Diseases Laboratory
3101 Gillespie Neuroscience Facility
University of California
Irvine, CA 92697-4292
phone (949) 824-6193
fax (949) 824-1223