The Practice of Science

Alexa McCray on being an accomplished, committed and honorable scientist

Alexa McCray giving master's programs graduation ceremony keynote speech

Thank you, Dean Golan. Good afternoon, Dean Daley, faculty and colleagues, graduates, and guests.  Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you on this celebratory day.

Each of you who will be graduating today has already had many accomplishments, and you are poised to have great impact in your chosen scientific field. You will follow different paths, but what will unite you all is that you will be scientists at heart and in practice. Some of you will follow an academic path, where you will contribute through your teaching and research; others of you will join industry, where you will contribute to a wide range of technological advances; and some of you will join the public sector, where you will, among other things, promote evidence-based policy making.

So what does it mean to be a scientist today? To answer that question, we might first look at the attributes of some of the great scientists of the middle of the last century all of whom laid the foundation for today’s biomedical science.

Many of these are profiled on a resource I developed at the NIH where I was an intramural research director for almost two decades before joining Harvard. The NIH’s National Library of Medicine is the steward for the papers of many eminent scientists of the early genomic era.  When the Internet was becoming ubiquitous in the mid 1990s, we decided to digitize the papers of some of these scientists and make them available through a public-facing web-based resource, which we called Profiles in Science. The papers include scientific articles and letters written to colleagues and family members, as well as photographs and other interesting materials.

The site brings the science alive, but, just as importantly in my mind, it gives a wonderful window into the lives—and trials and tribulations—of these individuals. At the same time it gives us clues as to some of the major attributes of being a scientist.

One of my favorite examples comes from the papers of Oswald Avery, who played an early and pioneering role in the molecular revolution in biology. In a letter that he wrote to his brother Roy in 1943, he reveals an as yet unpublished significant discovery. He starts and ends the letter with personal comments about his brother’s family, and then right in the middle of this otherwise ordinary letter, he reveals—and remember this is 1943—that he and his colleagues are pretty sure that they have discovered that the substance that produces permanent, heritable change in an organism is DNA. In case his brother thinks that this discovery was easily achieved, he also grumbles, ”Some job, full of headaches and heartbreaks.”

Avery gives us attribute number 1: Being a scientist is hard work.

As Thomas Edison famously said “What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Barbara McClintock, another scientist profiled on the Profiles in Science site, completed her PhD in 1927 at Cornell where, at the time, women were not allowed to be members of the genetics department. She wanted to study genetics, so instead of leaving Cornell, she basically said to herself well, never mind, I’ll join the botany department instead, and I’ll study the genetics of corn! Her studies on corn led to the discovery of mobile genetic elements, or as they were dubbed: jumping genes. McClintock encountered a fair amount of resistance and skepticism from the larger scientific community during her career because her research findings defied the common wisdom of the time. She persevered and at the age of 81 was the first woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

She gives us attribute number 2: Being a scientist requires keeping your eye on the goal.

Christian Anfinsen, a scientist trained in biochemistry at Harvard Medical School, spent many years in an intramural research lab at the NIH, where he did work that helped explain the structure and composition of proteins in living cells. This work earned him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1972. We learn from his papers that he played the viola and piano for relaxation and was an avid sailor, taking regular excursions up and down the East Coast. We also have a photo of him looking quite debonair in a tuxedo, so perhaps he even liked having an occasional night out on the town!

He gives us attribute number 3: Being a scientist doesn’t mean that you can’t also have a life.

Virginia Apgar was an anesthesiologist and was the first woman appointed full professor at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1949. She is best known for devising the Apgar Score, a simple and rapid method for assessing newborn viability. Indeed, it has been said that every baby born in a modern hospital anywhere in the world is looked at first through the eyes of Dr. Virginia Apgar. Her method significantly reduced infant mortality and laid the foundations of neonatology. Her papers include an interview in which she was asked why she kept basic resuscitation equipment with her at all times. She responded, “Nobody, but nobody, is going to stop breathing on me!"

She gives us attribute number 4: Being a scientist means that you have a passion for your work.

Joshua Lederberg, the last scientist I will profile in this brief discussion, and whom I had the great pleasure of knowing personally until his recent death, received the Nobel Prize at the tender age of 33 for "for his discoveries concerning genetic recombination and the organization of the genetic material of bacteria." His papers reveal a life devoted to science, science communication and science policy. He was a valued advisor to government agencies on global health policy, biological warfare and the threat of bioterrorism. He was also committed to making science understandable to the public and for a number of years wrote a weekly column on science and society for the Washington Post.

Finally, then, this gives us attribute number 5: Being a scientist implies a responsibility to society.

These are just five of the many attributes that make a person an accomplished, committed and honorable scientist. Those of you who are graduating today are already well on your way to evidencing these characteristics.

Recall attribute number 1: Being a scientist is hard work. This one is easy to demonstrate. Two thirds of you already have advanced degrees for which you have had to work very hard indeed. You have graduated from medical school or law school, or graduated with a PhD. Some of you have completed another master’s degree, and a few of you hold both an MD and a PhD. Others of you, for whom this is your first advanced degree, are headed to medical school or are contemplating applying to a PhD program. And now all of you, just to really prove that you relish hard work, have completed an intensive master’s degree, culminating in a well-conceived and—delivered—thesis or capstone project.

Attribute number 2 says: Being a scientist requires keeping your eye on the goal. It is abundantly clear from the research that you have undertaken that you are all deeply committed to improving human health. Using a wide variety of methods and technologies you have addressed difficult issues in understanding and treating disorders ranging from cancer, heart disease, diabetes and various infectious diseases to serious mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and brain injuries. Decades from now, or perhaps even sooner, I have no doubt that some of you will be profiled scientists yourselves!

Attribute number 3 says: Being a scientist doesn’t mean that you can’t also have a life. First, just by looking out at the audience today, I can see that you have a full life as evidenced by the families and friends who are here to support you. Second, a significant number of you, while working hard on your science—see attribute 1—are also devoted and engaged parents. Indeed, quite of few of you have become parents while enrolled in the master’s program. When walking through the halls of the medical school, I regularly overhear conversations about sleep schedules, diaper changes and play groups. What has changed since I was a young parent is that these conversations are often exclusively among dads! Finally, having a life implies that you also know how to have fun. I haven’t heard that many of you turn down opportunities to attend the regular happy hours and other social events that are on offer in your programs so I think you have that covered, too.

Attribute number 4 says: Being a scientist means that you have a passion for your work. Your research projects illustrate that many of you are passionate about guaranteeing access to high quality health care for all—no matter what part of the world someone lives in or what social or demographic group they might belong to. For others of you, it is a passion for devising innovative technologies that make a difference, whether that is novel uses of smartphones for monitoring health status or overcoming technical challenges in the use of modern techniques, such as neural networks, machine learning and automated image segmentation. This passion will drive you to new discoveries and is what will sustain you when you hit temporary, but remember, only temporary, roadblocks.

Attribute number 5 says: Being a scientist implies a responsibility to society. This, I believe, is a critical attribute that we need to take seriously if science is to remain vibrant, relevant and valued not only by the members of society but also by its leaders. Today’s astonishing and rapid developments in biomedicine and health care have significant implications for the future of the health and well-being of society at large. We have a responsibility to help others understand the science so that they can make the best evidence-based decisions, whether that is for themselves and their families or for the public good. As scientists, we are right to celebrate scientific advances, but we must also be vigilant and attentive to the potentially unintended consequences of those advances. Several of you who are graduating today have conducted research that aims to protect patients through effective informed consent. Others have studied the legal and regulatory practices that are meant to reduce medical errors, and others have looked at some of the broader ethical issues in today’s health care system. All of you are already responsible—and soon to be Harvard Medical School credentialed—researchers, and I am confident that you will continue to model the very best attributes of being a scientist.

Most of you know what the immediate next steps in your careers will be—after all, you just completed advanced training that has prepared you well for those next steps. However, it is perhaps not so clear what the longer or even medium term future will hold.

In my own case, I began my career more than thirty years ago—in the dark ages before the web, social media and digital everything. You might be surprised to hear that I wrote my several-hundred-page dissertation by hand on yellow legal pads. I was ahead of my peers however, because I then had it typed into a mainframe computer for printing and binding. You might also be surprised to hear that a couple of years later, in the mid 1980s, when I was a young research scientist at IBM’s Watson Research Center—a hotbed of innovation then as now—my colleagues and I were the only ones who had access to email. We had no one outside of our organization to send email to, so our email traffic consisted of “Is it time for lunch?; Where shall we meet?” Well, of course, things started moving very rapidly shortly thereafter with the advent of the Internet revolution that enabled the free exchange of digital information to anyone anywhere in the world. I have been extraordinarily lucky to have been working in science during this time of immense societal change.

But just as I could not imagine the enormous impact of digital technology on society, and, therefore, also, on the methods and practice of science, so too, it is likely difficult for you to imagine what will influence and enrich your scientific pursuits throughout your research careers. I encourage you to stay open to whatever these new developments are, to embrace them, to take risks when it makes sense to do so, and finally, to engage passionately in shaping a better future for us all. Keep your eye on the ultimate goal of improving human health and well-being, and don’t forget to have fun while you are doing so!

Adapted from a speech given by Alexa McCray at the Master's Degree Programs Graduation Ceremony on May 22, 2018.