Seeds of Discovery

On August 24, we greeted a new class of PhD students from around the world at the annual Seeds of Discovery White Coat ceremony. The following is an edited version of Dean Pamela Davis’ welcoming remarks.

I am honored to welcome another brilliant class of new scientists and researchers to Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.. Through your research findings, you will be supplying the concepts that will be included in tomorrow’s textbooks. You will shape future thinking with your experiments. Your future is bright with opportunity

There is huge responsibility associated with this profession. It demands unshakable integrity, drive, a passion for research and discovery, and a questioning mind.

Some of you will eventually move from the lab to the clinic and hospital floor, interacting with patients, becoming inspired by their stories. But even if you never meet a patient, your scientific achievements will influence their lives in major ways.

Your colleagues and mentors will be your guides and partners, but you will be the driving force behind your own development. For example, some years ago in my lab we were investigating the overzealous inflammatory response in cystic fibrosis lungs to infection. All CF children become infected in their lungs, and eventually nearly all acquire a nasty bacterium called Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

At the time, there was a prevalent belief that a massive inflammatory response was necessary to contain the infection, but our work suggested that it was the white blood cells in the inflammatory response that were doing the most damage to the patients’ lungs. If that was true, then controlling the inflammatory response might be of help. But the prevailing opinion was that reducing the inflammatory response might be dangerous and allow the infection to run wild.

After studies in cells and animals, we cautiously proposed a clinical trial of anti-inflammatory therapy. At the end of the four-year trial, it was gratifying to learn that the patients treated with the anti-inflammatory drug had lost a lot less lung function than those who received placebo. Later studies showed that even patients treated under less precisely controlled conditions benefitted from anti-inflammatory therapy, and most recently, we were able to show that this treatment actually lengthens survival. And it all came from our fundamental studies in the lab that cut against the grain.

Always keep in mind that modern scientific research is a process of collaboration and partnership. You may find your collaborators across the School of Medicine, the nation, and the world. Open yourself to many modes of thinking and models for discovery. What might you accomplish by working with experts in engineering, statistics, mathematics, or the social sciences? What can you learn from colleagues in history or the arts that might generate bold new advancements in your own field? Keep asking yourself these questions; they will unlock new doors.

Let me tell you about a recent conversation at my home. Some of our professors were over for dinner with a philanthropist in town. One of them got to talking about his work on myelin. He said that only shrimp and earthworms make myelin the way humans do, and he had chosen to work with earthworms. But they were hard to sustain. The philanthropist, who was a rare book collector, pointed out that Charles Darwin’s last book was on earthworms. Our guest had a copy and had read it. He told the professor that he needed deep soil to grow long earthworms because they like to live in soil upright, not horizontally.

This was a great insight, but there was another problem. Our professor could not study the same earthworm more than once because he had to euthanize them to get at the myelin. Another professor from our radiology department, also at the dinner table, said that he could conduct imaging tests on myelin in an earthworm if only they would lie still. Here the philanthropist said that if you wet your finger with alcohol and rubbed the worm, it would straighten out and lie still. And behold, they did!

So what became a sophisticated study of myelin was aided by a rare book collector.

What’s the upshot of this story? Our professor with the worms formed a spinout company to study producing more myelin in patients with multiple sclerosis. Believe it or not, there is no MS drug on the market that actually increases the synthesis of myelin.

You enter a time in which you will control your own learning, but you can also derive help and support from your peers and your mentors. American physicist Joseph Henry once noted that “the seeds of great discoveries are constantly floating around us, but they only take root in minds well prepared to receive them.” We will help you prepare your minds to capture and nurture those seeds.

For your part, you must be willing to receive them, and allow them to grow. The path to discovery is part of the fun and excitement. Just wait and see what amazing things will grow from those little seeds.

Today you enter into a covenant with the profession of medicine and with science, to seek the truth wherever it leads, and to always act with the highest integrity. Science demands truth, and you must demand no less from yourselves.

As you accept that white coat, you accept the responsibility and opportunity to take on discovery science with an open mind and a willing spirit. I can’t wait to see what you will accomplish!

Thank you and good luck to you all.