Biomed Rounds: Pomp, circumstance and
some speaker suggestions for grad ceremonies

05/24/2004 07:33 AM
By Dyke Hendrickson

It is spring, the time of commencements throughout New England.

And in keeping with a trend dating back many years, Your Scribe has not been asked to deliver a single graduation address. Still, I know luminaries that school officials can pursue if they are still scurrying around to find quality speakers for The Big Day.

The following are credentialed leaders who are among the best speakers in the life sciences industry:

Robert Langer — Langer is a professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at MIT. Unlike some professors who are as bland as empty beakers, he is a lively speaker with much relevant information to impart. His research has been used in the formation of close to 100 companies, and thus when Langer talks, people listen.

Una Ryan — Ryan is the witty CEO of Avant Immunotherapeutics Inc. and is as entertaining as any scientist this side of Dr. Irwin Corey. But she recently ascended to the post of chair of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, and her remarks are likely to be more sober in the coming year. Still, this makes her even more valuable as a speaker. Her message for the coming year will be to support prescription drug prices in the United States or risk losing the fast-growing biotech industry.

David Chin — This biobusinessman is a rarity — a physician-executive who can rip through a complex PowerPoint without either boring or baffling his listeners. Chin is a partner in the national health care practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers. He recently spoke at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Medical Device Industry Council. His topic was “Emerging Forces in Health Care,” and he outlined the challenges in a facile and informative way. (An aside: Too bad he didn’t offer solutions.)

Grace Wong — Wong is an entrepreneur, teacher and event coordinator, but for our purposes her most salient title is that of bio-gadfly. She criticizes corporations for what she says is undue greed; she rails against scientists for not exchanging data for the good of medicine. Wong is tart and aggressive and as a graduation speaker should keep the visiting grandparents from dozing.

Charles Vest — The MIT president is a lame duck of sorts, as he has announced his resignation. But he has been an influential supporter of the life sciences and still has things to say. I, for one, would like to hear something like, “As I look back on my decade at MIT, I want to say that I am looking forward to leaving all those pompous, egotistical academics behind.” Vest can turn a phrase, too. In one speech during the era, he drolly remarked, “In today’s society, VCs stand for venture capitalists. When I was in college a generation ago, VC meant something quite different — Viet Cong.”

Susan Lindquist — She is director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and recently was a keynote speaker at the Bio-IT World Conference in Boston. Lindquist has an informal style, which helps laymen understand the complex topics that she often chooses. Indeed, she often starts sentences with phrases like, “This is really weird but … ” You almost expect Lindquist to pepper her remarks with descriptive terms such as “awesome” or “gnarly.”

David Lederman — This doctor recently stepped down from the CEO post at Abiomed Inc., the company that is deep into human trials to develop an artificial heart. He is now chairman of the board of directors. His anecdotes are riveting because each trial participant that he references is a congestive heart-disease patient who has been spared from certain death. Lederman can be forthright, too. He once commented to a journalist on his 20-year effort to develop the artificial heart (I’m paraphrasing here), “If I had to do it over again, I don’t know that I would. The medical challenge that we have undertaken is just too hard.”

Richard Pops — One hat this executive wears is that of chair of the national Biotechnology Industry Organization. Like Ryan, he speaks frequently about the need to support the biotechnology industry (read: ailing Americans must pay high prices for medications because that supports research). But he has a story to tell regarding his day job. As CEO of Alkermes Inc., he heads a company that is developing drug-delivery systems to treat schizophrenia and alcoholism. Begowned students and professors should relate to these maladies.