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Don’t despair in the face of failure, biochemist tells grads

Commencent speaker Peter Kim, professor of biochemistry at the medical school, urged the graduates to persevere.

Norbert von der Groeben

Peter Kim, the medical school’s keynote speaker at this year’s diploma ceremony, recounted the failure he and fellow scientists faced in trying to create an effective HIV/AIDS vaccine.

By Tracie White

Rather than focusing on his many scientific successes, Peter Kim, PhD, a biochemist known for his innovative work in developing and shepherding drugs to market, chose instead to tell the School of Medicine’s graduating class of 2016 about one of his key failures.

“The greatest scientific failure in my career was when I had to stop a clinical trial of a vaccine for HIV/AIDS. And it came just as we thought we were on the threshold of success,” said Kim, the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor of Biochemistry, addressing the graduates and their families and friends seated under a giant white tent on the Dean’s Lawn on June 11. “When we ended the clinical trial, the hopes of literally millions of people around the world were dashed.”

The key is not to despair in the face of failure, said Kim, the keynote speaker at the diploma ceremony.

“As you know, science is, at its core, the pursuit of truth. ... That is what science is all about: discovering the truth and following it wherever it leads,” he said.

Lilies, roses, babies, cameras          

The ceremony began with the sounds of the Golden Gate Brass Ensemble playing as the robed graduates marched up on stage, led by Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. In the audience, mothers held lilies and roses for the graduates; dads held babies; everyone, it seemed, held a camera. It was a sunny afternoon filled with selfies and videos and group shots, a day of tears and celebration, and a day to pause and reflect on the years of hard work and the road ahead.

Following words of congratulations and encouragement from the two student speakers, Lauren Popov, who was receiving a PhD in microbiology and immunology, and Muthu Alagappan, who was receiving a medical degree, Minor introduced Kim. The dean encouraged graduates, each of whom he said faced “remarkable futures,” to “always remain true to yourself and your values.”

Kim, who earned a PhD in biochemistry at Stanford in 1985, joined the faculty of the School of Medicine in 2014 as a professor of biochemistry. He is member of Stanford ChEM-H, an interdisciplinary effort focused on the chemistry of human health.

Previously, Kim was president of Merck Research Laboratories, where he helped launch a vaccine targeting the human papilloma virus, the causative agent of cervical cancer, among many other products. He returned to Stanford to relaunch a career as a research scientist, he said. His research at Stanford includes efforts to create an HIV vaccine.    

‘Up a blind alley’

In 2003, as the newly installed head of Merck Research Labs, Kim believed that Merck scientists were close to finding a vaccine for HIV/AIDS. “This would not have been the ultimate HIV vaccine, but it would have been an enormous step forward,” he said. “And much of the scientific community, as well as the HIV/AIDS advocacy community, shared our optimism — and our hope.”

Under his leadership, Merck partnered with the National Institutes of Health to test the vaccine in 3,000 people, committing hundreds of millions of dollars to scale up production of the vaccine, ready to move into the final stage of testing if the results of the trial were encouraging, he said.

“Unfortunately, they were not,” he told the crowd. “Instead of making a breakthrough, we found ourselves up a blind alley. We had every reason to expect to succeed, but we had not. And this was a very public failure.”

Kim’s story was not, of course, just about failure. It was an inspirational tale of how failures in the world of science add to the greater body of scientific knowledge — and how his story of failure changed the course of his life, eventually leading him back to Stanford.

“On the day that we stopped the clinical trial, I wrote a letter to all Merck employees explaining the disappointing news,” he said. “I concluded by saying, ‘Although the answer is not what we desired, we had completed an incredibly important experiment.’ In as much as the results were deeply disappointing, we had succeeded in finding an approach that didn’t work. And that failure would lead researchers to search for other ways to succeed.

“Now that I am back in academia, I am among those continuing the search. Why? Because today more than 36 million people are living with HIV/AIDS — that is one out of every 200 people on Earth. The quest for this vaccine simply must continue until it succeeds.

‘Something you long look forward to’

“Expect to confront failure, but don’t let it defeat you,” Kim added. “Remember, as you leave this place, know that you carry with you the hopes of all those — yet unknown to you or them — in whose lives you will make a real difference. Carry this, not as a burden, but as an opportunity and a privilege.”

Families and friends of the graduates traveled from across the country, and around the world, to attend the day’s ceremonies. The class of 2016 was awarded 49 master’s degrees, 87 medical degrees and 94 doctorates. Twenty-six of the graduates received MD-PhD degrees.

The mother of AbdulRasheed Alabi, one of those MD-PhD grads, beamed at him in his robes, recalling his brilliance in preschool. “We came all the way from Nigeria,” she said. “This is something you long look forward to.”

Graduate Roxana Daneshjou, who also earned an MD-PhD, took a moment before the ceremony to thank her parents, who escaped persecution in Iran during the 1979 Iranian revolution by immigrating to the United States.

“My family sacrificed so much for me,” Daneshjou said. “My people, the Baha’i, are banned from attending higher education in Iran. My entire family came out from Texas to be here today. I’m the first doctor in the family.”

The words of the student speakers reflected the strong emotions of the day. They recounted the scholarship, hard work and perseverance that brought the graduates their diplomas, but also how their journey has left a lasting emotional mark.

“There’s that moment when you see something that no one has ever observed before, ... that precious nugget of knowledge, that moment when your discovery becomes part of a larger story of scientific progress,” said Popov, reflecting on the years of research that go into a PhD.

Alagappan, who received his MD, described a transformative moment that occurred for him during his clinical rotations: the joy of holding a 10-second-old baby girl.

“Literally all I did was hold a 6-pound infant for three minutes without dropping her, but I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I disposed of my gloves, wiped my eyes and thought to myself, ‘Everything was worth it.’”