Myron Cohen December Commencement Address

Myron Cohen, MD, J. Herbert Bate Distinguished Professor of Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology, and Epidemiology, gave the December Commencement Address at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012.

Myron Cohen December Commencement Address
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Speaker Myron Cohen, MD applauds graduates during the December Commencement ceremony.

Sunday, December 16, 2012
December Commencement Address
Myron Cohen, M.D., J. Herbert Bate Distinguished Professor of Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology, and Epidemiology
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Dean E. Smith Center
Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012


Good Afternoon.

First, let me thank the Chancellor and the commencement committee for giving me this rare privilege, and thank all of you for listening to me this afternoon.  Second, congratulations to the graduating students!  What a great accomplishment and wonderful day for you and your families.

Let’s start things the right way, with applause for the graduates.

And now you are asking, “Okay, but how long will this guy talk?”

Let me offer some perspective. The longest commencement speech in history was at Harvard, given in English, Greek and Latin over six hours, followed by an examination. The good news for you is, I will speak only in English, and very briefly.

As I begin I have two emotions: tremendous excitement for the students and personal anxiety.

Why should I be anxious about speaking to you?  Because this is not just another lecture.  This is the commencement address for the UNC Class of 2012.

The only purpose of a commencement speech to give life advice. The unique challenge is to say something, anything, memorable.

In preparation for this speech, I met with a group of students who graduated from several different Universities only last May. This was eye opening. For the most part, the students could not remember the commencement speaker’s name, the topic of the speech or any advice. This must surely represent memory loss resulting from great parties the night before graduation, which I sincerely hope you all enjoyed. But I am determined to say something memorable.

So to prepare for this address I looked for something memorable in other people’s commencement speeches.

For example, in 2009 the great singer Dolly Parton spoke to the graduating class at the University of Tennessee. She had an unusual explanation for her success. She attributed her success entirely to “really big wigs and very, very firm support.” This is memorable, and even meaningful for me personally, but not helpful for me today.

The comedian Ellen DeGeneres gave a speech that I thought might be relevant.

UNC graduation is so special in part because of our commitment to Carolina Blue. Students from other universities graduate in oh-so-depressing black robes, but you are wearing Carolina blue. From my vantage point on this stage the sea of blue you have created is inspiring.

Speaking at the Tulane Graduation in 2009, Ms. DeGeneres noted: “I cannot think of a more courageous graduating class. Look at you all, wearing robes. Where I come from-Hollywood- when you’re wearing a robe at two in the afternoon, it means you’ve already given up.”

So to say something memorable I need to focus on my own life, and the reason I was asked to speak.

I am an infectious disease doctor and researcher working on AIDS.  In 2011 my research team made a discovery that gained great attention. We were able to show that the life-saving drugs we use to treat people with HIV and AIDS could stop transmission of HIV from one person to another.

Scientists had been talking for years about whether treating HIV infection could stop the epidemic. Our study provided some real proof.

So I want to tell you the story of how all of this happened and to tell you what I learned that might serve as memorable advice.

I will share four lessons, and each begins with the letter “T.”  For the graduates today, their education may well have begun with the watching the television show Sesame Street. I know Elmo and Big Bird have had some real trouble this year, which I will not discuss any further. But as you are thinking about Sesame Street, I want to announce that this commencement address will be brought to you by the letter “T.”

My first lesson is about timing and taking chances. In 1979—33 years ago—I was a young physician working at Yale and my wife Gail—also a UNC Professor—was finishing a PhD degree. Because Gail was studying China, Yale offered us the chance to go to Wuhan, China in the center of the country to develop a medical collaboration. For me, this idea made no sense. I knew nothing about China; I spoke no Chinese; actually I had never thought much about China. But for no good reason I spent a year in China.

What happened in China? We learned a lot about Mao and communism and Chinese food, and we wrote a book we hoped would be a blockbuster. Parenthetically, as of this morning, there are 16 used copies of our book on Amazon.com for 99 cents each.

But back to my story. We came to Chapel Hill directly from China and ten years later AIDS was a global epidemic. I was then invited to work on AIDS prevention in Africa specifically because I had “international experience.” Africa, China—I guess it’s all the same once you leave Chapel Hill.

But seriously, it was my random time in China that got me invited to work on AIDs in Africa. And my time in China actually taught me lessons I could use a decade later.

The late Steve Jobs called the phenomenon of the long-term benefits of random decisions as “connecting the dots.” As he pointed out, you can only connect the dots when you are looking backwards.

As you go through your lives, at different moments in time, doors will open and doors will close. You have no idea which is the right door, or what will happen on the other side of the door, or where the door will lead. And at the time you chose a door, it may seem irrational or ill-conceived. I can promise you that your parents will agonize about the doors you choose.

But there are no wrong doors. There will be an important experience on the other side of each and every door. When the time comes, go through the door. Whatever doors you chose there will always be great dots to connect as you look backwards.

The second lesson I learned was about trust. Please note the letter “T.”

Trust is not much discussed, except by politicians, who rarely think each other are trustworthy.

I could not find much about trust in commencement speeches, although I think I saw trust funds mentioned in a speech at a nearby university.

Why am I so concerned about trust? In 1985, 10 percent of the people admitted to UNC Hospitals, just down the road from here, suffered from AIDS infection, and none, NONE, of our patients survived. This was a terrible time. And AIDS was causing a global pandemic. We needed to stop the spreads of AIDS.

But to do understand how to stop the spread of AIDS we needed to do research.  We needed to be able grow the  virus, and study it in a lab, and we needed to build a state-of-the-art research clinic in Africa, where the disease was spreading like wildfire.

And here is where I ran into another little problem. I knew I wanted to work on AIDS prevention, but I did not know how to do any of these things.

To make this happen, we developed collaborations with people all over the UNC campus and all over the world. These turned out to be lifelong collaborations and lifelong friendships.

Our research team has stayed together for more than two decades, working tirelessly on this urgent and stressful and terrible problem. How did we stay together?

Because we trusted each other.

For sure my own greatest motivation over all these years was living up to the trust that our research team and our patients placed in me.

As you go forward in your life, your family and your friends and your colleagues and your bosses will want to trust you; they need to trust you. Such trust is ever so precious. Win their trust, and guard it jealously.

Let’s go to yet another “T” word: tenacity.

To repeat the beginning of this story, our research team believed that if you treated someone with HIV infection—and they took their pills every day—they would no longer be contagious.

In 1999 we set out to prove this idea. But the work didn’t happen overnight. It took us twelve years. We had to convince 4000 heroic people in nine countries in Asia, Africa, and North and South America to volunteer for this study.

The study ultimately cost $78 million, and we needed to convince six American drug companies to donate more than $20 million worth of antiviral drugs. And during the first ten years of the study, we made no presentations nor did we publish any reports. All of you have heard that professors must “publish or perish,” so given this track record, this study did not always seem like the best idea.

But now let’s now fast forward to April of 2011. We got our results. Until that day in April we had no idea whether this giant study would show any meaningful results.

But that day we learned that our study showed that by treating HIV infected people we had stopped HIV transmission close to 100% of the time.

The day after we announced the study results they were reported on the front page of newspapers worldwide. The Economist magazine made the results their cover story and declared “The End of AIDS.”

And the journal Science named our work the “Breakthrough of the Year.” This recognition from Science requires a metaphor: it was like winning American Idol or Dancing with the Stars.

What did I learn from all of this? The value of tenacity. Tenacity is just as important as brains. The easy things are already being done. For the hard things, for the difficult challenges, you will surely need great tenacity. People will tell you cannot achieve your goal or that it is not worth doing. I certainly heard this over and over for twelve years.

But if you are committed to an idea, you must go forward.

Your years of work at UNC were not easy. Today you are graduating from one of the very best universities in the world. And the one with the best basketball team in the universe.

With your graduation today, you have already demonstrated tremendous tenacity. Indeed, we are here right now to recognize and applaud your tenacity.

And I need to bring up yet another “T” word:  talent. I was incredibly lucky to find a career in which I could use my talents.  Each of you has many talents, both known and unknown. Now is the moment I would ask each parent to look at their child, because the parents most clearly see the unlimited potential of our graduates.

I know some of the talents already.  Among the students graduating today there are gifted musicians and writers and young scientists. Based on your performances here at UNC, I can predict that some of you will go on to start great businesses or to cure diseases, and some of you will devote your lives in service to the poorest and neediest people of the world.

Now I know that some of you are likely saying, “Okay, what is my talent?” Or, “Darn, I must have missed the class about my talents,” or, “I tried to sign up but the class was full.” And the more confident among you are saying, “I know I am talented. But how do I get the chance to use my talent?” Not to worry: take chances, be tenacious and your talents will triumph.  English majors, please note my use of alliteration.

So, let me once again offer my heartfelt congratulations to you and your families as you finish your time in Chapel Hill.

And now, there is the final and ultimately most important “T” word that must be said before you leave today.

This “T” word requires audience participation.

Who are you?

As you leave here as a proud graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill what will you be called ? Now and forever, you will officially be known as a TAR-HEEL.

Thank you for listening and have a wonderful life.

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