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Convocation marks beginning of ‘great adventure’

2024 Graduate Studies Honors Convocation keynote speaker John Leonard, MD, right, president and CEO of Intellia Therapeutics, is congratulated by Dele Davies, MD.

After the graduation celebrations end, what are you going to do?

John Leonard, MD, president and CEO of Intellia Therapeutics, posed that question recently to degree candidates at UNMC’s Graduate Studies Honors Convocation.

“This is only the beginning,” he told the soon-to-be graduates on May 3 while delivering the keynote address at the Omaha Conservatory of Music. “What you choose to do doesn’t have to be just a job or a succession of roles that culminate in a career. What you choose to do can also be a great adventure.”

Dr. Leonard – recognized among the first TIME100 Health leaders for his work on CRISPR-based technologies – is proof that careers can become more than one envisions.

After graduating from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1983, he said he planned to practice medicine. Then, after completed an internal medicine residency at Stanford University School of Medicine and a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, he wanted to pose deeper disease questions of ‘how’ and ‘why.’

He realized “seeds of opportunity” toward a new career already had been planted – during microbiology discussions on recombinant DNA and hospital rounds in the early ’80s when patients presented with AIDS before the disease had been identified. Dr. Leonard’s career turned toward working with scientists and clinicians on the basic problems of disease and developing medicines that would impact more patients than he could ever see in a clinical career.

Liliana Bronner, PhD, was among those celebrating her special day at convocation.

Today, Dr. Leonard is among the leading research and development executives who have led breakthrough medicines through their discovery, development and launch into blockbuster drugs. While serving as global head of pharmaceutical R&D at Abbott Laboratories, he oversaw the development of numerous novel therapeutics. His groundbreaking work with HIV protease inhibitors Norvir® and Kaletra® led to new treatment paradigms for AIDS, his years of work with Humira® made it the all-time top-selling drug worldwide, and he led significant growth of the R&D pipeline at Abbott and Abbvie.

“You are only beginning,” he told UNMC’s degree candidates. “Open your minds to the possibilities that will come your way. What you think you will be doing in the future can be different and far bigger than what you can imagine today, but you have to allow that to happen.”

Dr. Leonard closed by saying:

  • The pace of innovation has accelerated, and science makes that possible. “If you stay tuned in and continue to grow, you should be able to find your way to a front row seat of that innovation.”
  • The risks you take should be calculated, he said, noting there’s something to be lost and something to be gained with each career choice. It rarely makes sense, he said, to bet the house.
  • Think of your career as an intellectual, personal adventure. Use your skills to ask challenging questions and apply tools that get to deeper answers because “it will take you places you never expected to go.”

Then, each master’s and doctoral degree candidate received their academic hood, signifying success in completing their graduate program. Afterward, Brinea Charles, who earned her Doctor of Philosophy in applied behavior analysis, said the day was full of emotions.

“It feels like a marathon, and you’re reached the finish line,” she said. “It’s incredible to be recognized.” Dr. Charles will complete a post-doc fellowship in Tampa, Florida, and, in January, join Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, as an assistant professor.

For Sahil Sethi, PhD, there was joy and a sense of relief. Dr. Sethi, who received his Doctor of Philosophy in biomedical informatics and plans to work in industry, said it’s been a rollercoaster. He was grateful to his wife for pushing him toward a PhD, and said he hoped his 2-month-old daughter was proud.

Interim Chancellor Dele Davies, MD, then the senior vice chancellor for academic affairs and dean of graduate studies, closed the ceremony saying the 2024 grads are poised to continue the legacy of discovery. “Bring your full passion, enthusiasm and grit to every situation,” he said. “Remember, you are on a lifelong journey of excellence so look for golden opportunities.”

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