Welcome from President of the Board of Trustees
Mr. Brian Simmons P’12,’14
Brian Simmons: Good morning, Deerfield. I’m Brian Simmons, President of the Board of Trustees. It’s my honor to welcome you today as we celebrate the inspiring, intrepid, resilient, and remarkable class of 2021. There are many traditions in the days leading up to commencement.
Baccalaureate, the faculty and seniors’ dinner, last night’s wonderful party with parents, senior cry, and probably a few others that are not on the official program. Perhaps, fireworks have started a new tradition. We will have to see.
There’s also the iconic procession along Albany Road. My kids made that walk many years ago, and it doesn’t matter how many commencements you’ve seen yhat procession gets to you every time. It’s just a profound Deerfield moment, a literal trek in the journey from Deerfield student to Deerfield alum.
Today’s walk down Albany Road was particularly special. It was a poignant reminder that this is Deerfield’s first oncampus commencement since 2019.
As much as today recognizes the triumphs of the class of 2021, it also provides a powerful symbol of Deerfield’s strength as we navigated challenges created by a global health crisis, a crisis I’m pretty sure none of us had on our radar screens the last time we gathered here for commencement.
There’s a quote by comic strip artist, Allen Saunders, made famous by John Lennon. I promise I won’t try to sing it. “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” That has never seemed truer to me than now, and we sure have had a lot of life over the past 15 months.
Last year, as COVID’s grip on the world began to tighten, I received an early morning phone call from Dr. Austin. He told me he was cutting short his family’s spring break trip and returning by himself to campus. When he called me from his office the next day, he said he thought he was the only person on campus. Even now, I can picture him sitting in his office alone wondering what to do.
Well, he didn’t wonder for long, and that’s the moment our COVID response planning began. The goals were straightforward. Bring teachers and students back to campus safely and deliver a worldclass academic and student life experience despite obvious risks and limitations.
I think we’ve achieved those goals. I’ll go even further. I think we’ve set the bar high for managing through crisis successfully, for balancing risks and making informed decisions in the best interests of our students and employees.
I’ll stack our record up against anyone’s, and every member of this community has played a role in our success. Dr. Austin and his leadership team have been simply outstanding, guiding the way with a seemingly limitless limitless commitment of time and energy.
Can you believe that this is only Dr. Austin’s second year at Deerfield? I’ve told him that these two years are like dog years, and now, he has the equivalent of 14 years’ experience as head of school.
Dr. Austin, along with every single faculty and staff member, all other employees, and everyone’s spouses, partners, and families Monica, that means you deserve our profound thanks for their tireless, inspired commitment to Deerfield and for their teamwork and understanding, for their great ideas, flexibility, unending good cheer and unyielding belief that, if they dug in and did the hard work together, then they would be successful.
Well, it turns out they were right, but you can’t even imagine the challenges the myriad of complex interrelated decisions and the need to push back against forces that sometimes seemed to demand that we just give up. Deerfield does not give up.
Brian: I think each of us is still sorting out the lessons of the past year, finding meaning and direction. I know I am. Among these lessons is the value of teamwork and having faith in each other. Another is the importance of having clear goals and sticking to them.
Despite numerous twists and turns, we never lost sight of our goals. We forged ahead and stuck to our plan, adapting as necessary. We set a course based on the best information we had and steered by our convictions.
We stayed in our lane. The Deerfield car did not go into the ditch. There’s honor and integrity in this approach even if you don’t get everything exactly right. It’s also entirely possible that you’ll wind up where you had never imagined going. I think that’s a big part of what we have achieved.
Here in America, the pandemic is largely behind us. However, all that we have learned and the enhanced strength of this community will stay with us forever, so will the outdoor ice rink, the volleyball courts, the food trucks, and an improved academic schedule and renewed commitment to thinking big and achieving outsized goals. Not bad lessons to take away from a challenging year.
The past year has brought into sharp focus those things that matter most, families and friends, as well as the communities and places that shape our lives. Many excellent organizations and the countless people who’ve worked to sustain them have suffered this year through no fault of their own.
Deerfield has been one of the lucky few that grew stronger as the year went on. Everyone in this community made sacrifices to reopen and get us to where we are today. We have proven that we can work together and accomplish great things. Never forget that, and never let anyone tell you it’s not possible.
At the same time, pride in what we have accomplished needs to be tempered with respect, understanding, and a helping hand for those whose experiences have not been as robust as ours. That’s another good lesson to take away from a challenging year.
Deerfield is uniquely fortunate to have had decades of farsighted leadership and a diverse community of alums, parents, students, faculty, and staff who have devoted themselves to our mission. It’s just not random that we had the resources to implement the COVID response plan that Dr. Austin and his team developed.
Our ability to respond resulted from our culture, values, and the commitment of so many people in so many ways over the long history of this incredible school. Members of the class of 2021, you are moments away from becoming alumni.
I’m confident that your relationship to Deerfield will only deepen over time. This will always be your school. It will become your responsibility, and I predict your great way to get involved in ways that align with your interest and abilities so that others will have the tremendous experiences and opportunities that you’ve been given.
Deerfield has indeed finished up strong. As a class, you’ve led the way, but you started the year out strong, too. It’s worth remembering back to fall when you began your senior year. First, I want to say that all the effort to reopen Deerfield would have been wasted had you decided not to come back, so thank you for coming back.
I’m serious. Your decision to return was an important leap of faith, a show of support for all those who’d worked so hard to create a safe, secure, fun environment, one that looked as much as possible like the Deerfield’s you’d left only half a year earlier for what you assumed would be a typical spring break.
Now, when you leave this time, you’ll have to pack up your rooms yourselves. Someone had to take that first step. As you returned to campus, you showed your fellow students the way. You arrived to find a whole bunch of new restrictions and rules, rules that governed where to eat, who you could spend time with, where you walk.
If you wanted to walk, you were taken out for a lap around campus. Sure, your faculty residents were caring and careful as they escorted you on prescribed routes, but I have no doubt you wanted more freedom.
You were patient, for the most part. You understood the stakes. You knew that if you led the way, others would follow, and Deerfield would succeed. The objective was clear. Stay together as a community here on campus so you could live your Deerfield lives as fully as possible.
You showed exceptional grace, maturity, and leadership. You stuck to the plan. You stayed on course. With each term, there was a sense of gain, a feeling that we were getting closer to something resembling normal.
There was the green and white challenge, [indecipherable 9:42] elastic competition. One day, there was an ice rink where there had never been one before. There was a volleyball court. Then if you could believe your eyes, there were new people on campus, parents. They hadn’t been here since dropoff.
Fall is where you started off strong, but throughout the year, you did something else that mattered incredibly. You made sure that all of your fellow students understood how things were before COVID.
Almost half the students at Deerfield have never known a year without COVID. That’s also true for many faculty members and one head of school. Your leadership in keeping our culture and traditions alive may well be your most important contribution this year.
Seniors, today, you conclude your time as Deerfield students. You may be tempted to think you were shortchanged this year that these Deerfield days were not days of glory. I believe otherwise, they were. I think you’ve been given an invaluable gift. Early in your lives, you’ve been able to experience the challenges and rewards of struggling through something bigger than all of us.
Take the lessons you’ve learned with you as you head to college and beyond. In life, the foundations of success are oftentimes lumpy. The experiences that matter most are not always obvious.
As you continue your journey with fortitude and strength, lean on the experiences of the past year for resolve, for inspiration, and for a concrete reminder of what committed communities can accomplish if they work together in pursuit of worthy goals.
I speak for everyone on the board when I say we share your parents’ and teachers’ pride in your accomplishments. We are all so excited for what lies ahead. Congratulations, 2021.
Brian: Before we hear from Dr. Austin, I want to take just a minute and welcome our guest speaker, Dr. William Kaelin. He’ll get a proper introduction shortly, but Dr. Kaelin and I were parents together many years. I’d not seen him for several years until 2018, when the head of school search committee held a reception in Boston.
There in the audience was Bill. I think he was the only person there who was not an alum or current parent. Here’s this incredibly busy, accomplished physician and researcher taking time to attend an evening event for a school his kids had left years before.
That says so much about the strength of the Deerfield community. Whether he knows it or not, Dr. Kaelin’s commitment to Deerfield has served as a beacon for me, so thank you, Bill. We’ll now hear from Dr. Austin.
Remarks from Angela Osei-Ampadu
Good Morning to you all. I would first like to thank my beautiful mother, my amazing friends who inspire me daily, the wonderful educators who have equipped me for this coming phase of life, and, most importantly, the class of 2021, arguably the best Deerfield class in this great academy’s history, for granting me the opportunity to speak today. You, my amazing classmates, have changed my world.
Through the early curfews freshman year for launching ourselves off the crow railing, to collectively sliding down the icy unheated pathways in class dress, interesting usage of laundry room appliances, multiple concussions and broken femurs and torn acls, and just barely surviving a particularly treacherous senior sneak out– we stuck together. And for that, I am so eternally grateful. Because at this moment, the APs, both the College board’s brand of punishment and Deerfield’s accountability points, the Friday night restrictions, awkward schemes, mortifying class presentations, the cheeseless mac and cheese burritos, and playing Bubble Soccer on our Friday nights, are behind us. And may they stay there, forever. All that’s in front of us, is everything.
To the class of 2021, welcome to the end. As frightening as that statement may sound, do not be alarmed, because I know it is incomplete. So yes, in one version of our story at Deerfield, this is, in some ways, the end. The end of all-nighters during finals week, classes, hall brushy washies, silent dances, disturbingly silent sit down tables, long, and having to show your POM tracer before you can enter the dining hall.
But in another story, one more fitting of a complete body of students, dreams, and experiences, although graduation marks some of the “end”, the end of our connection to Deerfield, and more importantly, to each other, will never come. The end is only a conceptual limit, and as many of us struggled and almost failed to learn in Calculus this year, some limits do not exist.
Some ends are only beginnings. Some places are only places. But this place, this, our sprawling Deerfield home in the Pocumtuck Valley, which is really just one tiny speck of green on this Big green Earth, it is magic. And the movement of time through our lives has revealed that to me. We may remember from the wisdom of Freshman year physics that we perceive the events of time in a linear progression or clear one-directional regressions. But, in reality, time moves in cycles, zig-zag Greer lines, river currents, and corn field loops sometimes collapsing, returning us back to old places and urging us on to new ones. In this dimension, you can physically touch the little programs for today’s ceremony, smell, the gorgeous green grass and the lingering manure that made it that way, and see me standing before you all today.
But in another equally present dimension, a 14 year old me sits at a cold, ironically unforgiving Catholic school desk in New York compiling a list of aspirations and desires for the future. Manifestation, before it was trendy. As I read the words I wrote to you today, that dimension and this one reach out and meet each other again, as they were destined to, as we all were destined to reach out of our homes from every corner of the world and meet here.
8th Grade Angie writes in pink glitter pen: Future Goals, by the time I graduate high school or somewhere close, I don’t want to be super old like 25 or anything:
- I will learn to ride a bike
-my bike ended up being a 3-wheeled beauty, incomplete with no working brakes but full of grit and spirit and follow through just like our class. Some of you have been brave enough to entrust your lives in my hands each time you step on the back and hold on to my shoulders for a ride.
- I will have my driver’s license so I can bring the pink lamborghini on to the race to China
-far more luxurious than a lambo, the reliable Green Machine brought me on 2 hour races to Andover and Exeter for JV volleyball and wrestling matches, interscholastic dances, and Choate Day. Smooth, stick to your skin pseudo-pleather interiors and somewhat patchy green coats. And all the while keeping me and my best friends safe and laughing, a little bumped up in the back, but safe
- I will learn to swim well
-Yea that one never really happened but …hey we have a few hours
- Get a sponsorship from Bill Gates
-I have yet to do this, but I have learned to network well, and the founder of Spikeball, our beloved Deerfield recreational sport, does indeed follow me back on Instagram
- I will destabilize the fascist state
-a work in progress….not much can be said on that at this venue…publicly
- Become a famous athlete and then retire to be a WWE wrestler like all the greats
-Inspired by my obsession with WWE wrestlers I inherited from my older brother, I did join the wrestling team and advance to Nationals.
- Be recognized in the Guiness Book of World Records, for anything, to be honest
-Though my face has not YET graced the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records, I did win a few superlatives such as most likely to brighten up your day, and most likely to be a daytime gossip talk show host, like my idol Wendy Williams.
- Learn how to whistle
-Well, I’ve learned to kazoo and I do a beautiful rendition of our gracious leader, Brittney Spears’s Toxic. With the help of a good friend from across the world in Shanghai, China, I established an out of tune musical orchestra to overcompensate from the very true and sad fact that I cannot whistle. A big thank you to all those kind people who are brave enough to sign their souls over to the Deerfield Morale Volunteers every year at the club fair, and even braver to get up on the stage with me to perform at school meetings.
That’s the truth Deerfield has taught me. That, in this life, there are absolutely no guarantees, except receiving a text from the corona virus symptom screening alert at 7:35 am every single blessed day. Outcomes are not guaranteed. Success is not guaranteed. Your idea of success is not guaranteed to remain unchanged. Your vision, from your singular perspective only being able to understand a narrow set of believed facts, is not guaranteed. In fact, oftentimes the things you want are the antithesis of the things you need and the things the world will bring you. Happiness is not guaranteed. And neither is sadness, or failure or regret or hesitation. Which is in one sense dramatically horrifying, like how a 14 year old me thought 25 was a “super old age”, and in the exact same moment incredibly freeing. In a world like ours where nothing is guaranteed, imagine all the wonderful possibilities and the funny way life has working things out.
I want you all to breathe with me. [Breath]. Hold it there and in the moments where you forget to breathe, release it into yourself. And as you breathe, know you are joining me in taking this breath through space and time just as we have joined the story of this place.
Our heritage is now its heritage and its heritage is ours, all parts. As the Pocumtuck Tribe of Natives dwelled and still dwell in this valley erecting homes, monuments, civilizations, we erect ourselves each to build a home of our own, a massive Earth home of 7 billion in our precious microcosm of graduating class of 191 people. And as the settlers who forced the native peoples out through violence and fear have written the history of this place, we tell a story of our own, an honest one. As we reckon with the evil and destruction that has occurred here, we are tasked every day to do better and be better in hope of a more loving world. And as Black enslaved peoples on this land organized and strategized and fought and resisted their oppression, we inherited their resistance and held a sit-in protest composed of hundreds of people: students and teachers and staff, against the rampant racism Black students experience on this campus on the first day of classes this year. Author and activist, Ta-Nehisi Coates brilliantly tasks us with reconciling with our heritage, as Deerfield has taught us to be worthy of doing. Coates says “the question is not whether we will be tied to the somethings or heritage of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.
We are tied together by 7 false positive covid scares per term, roller coaster rides at Six Flags, and the beautiful works of art we create. We are tied together by the notorious freshmen year trip to Camp Becket, shoutout to Kendall Duff and Cortland Dicks for being my first friends I made there. We are tied together by an amazing prom, which was, unfortunately, a failed opportunity to play Future’s prophetic song “Mask Off ”. We are tied together by the inspiration of past classes of student leaders and proctors and friends; and the inspiration we hope to give to the coming ones. The legacy of this place is ours and our legacy will belong to it.
We are carried here today by all those who have charted uncertain waters so that we didn’t have to, shattered glass ceilings with bloodied hands so that we could see the sky without obstruction. We are carried here by all their efforts, good and bad, successful and not. So it is with great pride that we stand on the backs of giants. And from this vantage, so far up, we can see everything that has led to this exact moment, this exact circumstance in this particular place. We can see the movement of time through different life cycles, the goodness of those people who loved us enough to want to create a better world for us even before we were here. We can see our responsibility to be the giants that the coming classes of students will stand on and see their world from a new perspective or an old one.
To the Class of 2022 and the younger grades, do not fail to remember to build on the heritage of resilience and inclusivity the Class of 2021 has left. It took true amounts of resilience for our grade to continue to unenthusiastically chant “we bring the hype, we bring the fun. We’re the class of 2021” every Wednesday at school meetings after being booed by all the other grades. Remember to welcome with open hearts and glittery eyes those who you see sitting alone in the dining hall in need of a friend.The best treasures and friendships are hidden in plain sight waiting to be discovered if only you dare to step out of your comfort zones.
To the legendary Class of 2021, as we stand on the backs of giants, we can see nearly everything, the events of the past and the reality of the current. Even from this height at this angle, the future remains a billowy cotton ball cloud with hazy ends and fuzzy beginnings. Today, we step through that cloud. And as we enter new worlds and experiences and times, we are forever linked by this time, moving in waves and twists, bringing us back home again. The memory of our time here, forever golden, imprinted in the front of our brains and in the spirit of this place. We are tied together beyond this place and time. We are tied together forever. Deerfield will never forget about us and we will never forget it because a place where someone still thinks of you, is a place you can call home.
I love you all. Thank you.
Angie – This is just brilliantly beautiful! I made a few small suggestions and did some copy editing as I read, but the way you weave the past and present, the intimate and the grand, is just perfection! I look forward to hearing you read it on Sunday! – Hugs, Mrs. Schloat
Keynote Address from Dr. William G. Kaelin, Jr.
Dr. William G. Kaelin, Jr. P’11,’14
Thank you, Dr. Austin. I’d also like to thank the trustees, the faculty, and the students for letting me join in this celebration today at the Class of 2021. I’d like to begin by saying I suspect the Class of 2021 is feeling like it was a bit unfair that their experience at Deerfield was somewhat disrupted by COVID.
I think the perseverance and the resilience you displayed will undoubtedly serve you well in the future. As was mentioned, I am a proud Deerfield parent, so I have some idea of what your family and friends perhaps did you to help you get to this wonderful day. I’d like to invite the Class of 2021 to stand and join me as I give your family and friends a round of applause.
Speaking of family, my father was the first member of his family to go to college. His father was a manual laborer. In fact, when I was a young boy, I made it a point to brag to my classmates that my grandfather had built the VerrazzanoNarrows Bridge, which of course really meant that he had laid the reinforcing steel with hundreds of other people to build the VerrazzanoNarrows Bridge.
My father realized that his family would never be able to afford to send him to an established university such an Ivy League school, so he went to the local public library, and he tried to find a school that was still up-and-coming and might perhaps be on the edge of affordability.
He centered on Duke University, which had only become a national university twenty years earlier. Actually, pretty clever. He applied to Duke University and was rejected. He then hitchhiked from East Rockaway, Long Island to Durham, North Carolina, which in those days took three days because the interstate system hadn’t been set up yet.
He then camped outside of the admissions office. They were so impressed with his determination that they gave him an aptitude test and an interview, and they then accepted him to Duke. By the way, I’m not advocating this for any of you.
I think this was a one-off. I don’t think this is going to happen again. My father did a number of odd jobs to go through school, including selling sandwiches illegally in the dormitories at night. He got a scholarship to go to Duke Law School.
To help him control the costs, they allowed him to combine his senior year of college with his first year of law school. All of this is to say my father became fiercely, fiercely loyal to Duke University. That’s going to become important in a few minutes.
My father went on to be a very successful lawyer in New York. Shortly after graduating from law school, he married my mother. They had five children, with me as the oldest. I was born in 1957, which if you were going to be a scientist, was an unbelievably great year to be born because, of course, that was the year of Sputnik.
Throughout my childhood and early adulthood, scientists and engineers were treated like heroes in our country because of the Space Race and the Cold War. For the same reasons, throughout my early years, there was robust bipartisan support for scientific research and science education.
Like most boys of that era and I am sad to say it was mostly boys I had a number of toys that were meant to foster an interest in STEM. For example, I had multiple chemistry sets back when they were allowed to have alarmingly dangerous chemicals that could actually blow up your house.
I had a little microscope, which by the way, is currently on display in the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, if you ever want to take a trip. I had electric cars. I had electric trains, construction toys. Everything about STEM. It was STEM, STEM, STEM.
I suspect you’re now expecting me to say, “And I was a great student.” No, I was not a great student. Like a lot of young people, I much preferred playing and watching television as opposed to studying. By the way, when I say television, I don’t mean PBS. I mean like Gilligan’s Island and that kind of stuff.
My least favorite type of studying was rote memorization. It wasn’t so bad learning interesting ideas and concepts, but ah, rote memorization was the worst. Ironically, I didn’t really like biology when I was younger, because it was so descriptive and so taxonomic.
By far, my favorite subject was mathematics. There was a simple reason for that. My mother had been a mathematician when she was younger, and I must have gotten some of her math genes because math just came very easily to me.
If you introduced a new mathematical concept to me, it was almost always intuitively obvious, and I could see exactly how you would apply it. Most importantly, I never had to study it again, so that was my kind of subject.
My usual pattern in elementary school was getting those As in mathematics, but I was otherwise getting B’s and even the occasional C’s in elementary school. I should point out, I went to a Catholic elementary school on the south shore of Long Island that at that time had 50 students per class, which was just perfect for blending in with the pack and coasting through school.
That’s where I was. Then when I was twelve-years old, my father was facing the specter of sending five kids to private school. At that time, one of his buddies was working in the Duke Admissions office. He called him, and he said, “You must rate all of these public schools. Find me the best public school system within 60 miles of New York City, and I will move.”
At least in 1969, the answer came back, “Move to Fairfield, Connecticut,” so we moved to Fairfield, Connecticut. I don’t know if we have anyone from Fairfield here. Now, I have to say I was a shy kid to begin with, but getting dropped into a new public school system in the 8th grade didn’t help all too much.
Be that as it may, I fell back into my pattern, As in math, B’s in everything else. Then something happened that was completely transformative. In my junior year of high school, my high school was one of the first high schools to get a computer terminal.
Now, I say terminal because this was before personal computers. When I say terminal, it’s because it was linked to a mainframe at Fairfield University. I was amazed by this, this new computer science, because to me, computer science was math in action.
It was actually exhilarating to sit at a computer terminal and give this powerful machine a command and have it respond to you. I became very interested in computers. Now, more importantly and I can remember it so vividly if I close my eyes one day, in the wastepaper bin next to the computer terminal, there was a lone pamphlet.
I got the pamphlet, it was a pamphlet for a National Science Foundation student science training program for thirty-two students from around the country to go to Florida Atlantic University and study college-level mathematics and computer science for eight weeks the following summer.
I applied, and miraculously, I was accepted. I presume because of my aptitude test. Now, my father thought this was pretty frivolous. He thought I should be home doing yard work during the summer and working as a busboy at a neighboring restaurant, which believe me, I did plenty of when I was young.
My mother thankfully advocated for me, and my father finally relented. Away I go, I’m flying from New York to Miami to go to Florida Atlantic University. It turned out there was one other boy from Connecticut attending the same program, and he sat next to me on the plane.
I’m pretty sure I got out something to read like Sports Illustrated. He got out two books. The first book is a fiction book called Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I don’t know if any of you are familiar with it. It’s completely impenetrable.
It’s 800 pages. I’ve tried three times. I’ve never gotten past page 100. For example, there was a new SAT vocabulary word every other page. Has anyone here ever finished Gravity’s Rainbow? I want to get a selfie with you later if you have, but no one. I’m not surprised.
The other book was a paperback book entitled Introduction to NonEuclidean Geometry. Now, I don’t know what was more alarming about this. The thought that there was some other geometry that no one had told me about before, or that some high school boy actually thought this passed for summer pleasure reading.
This was a harbinger of things to come. I get down to Florida Atlantic University, and I meet my fellow classmates. It basically looked like a casting call for Revenge of the Nerds. It was Coke bottle glasses, pocket protectors, stripes on plaid, the whole nine yards.
This summer completely changed my life, because I had never been surrounded by such smart and brilliant kids, and I had never been exposed to a curriculum that was frankly this interesting, challenging, and fun.
I realized at that moment my real problem previously in school was I was simply bored. Now, I had something I could get excited about. This brings us to my first takehome message.
It might make you feel good if you’re always the smartest person in the room, or you’re always the best player on the field, but you will grow much faster if you can surround yourselves by people who are smarter than you are and more talented than you are.
Now, there were two other revelations that summer. The first was it was true that many of these other students were socially challenged and maybe even on the spectrum, but some of them were normal kids, who just happened to be, as we say in Boston, “Wicked smart.”
I prided myself in being somewhat normal, so at least I could identify with these other kids. More importantly, the other revelation was I wasn’t the 32nd dumbest kid of the group. In fact, as the summer went on, it was pretty clear I could hold my own with most of these kids.
What was true is they all had much, much, much better grades back home than I did, because of course, they had much, much, much better study habits than I did, which admittedly wasn’t saying so much. I decided for my senior year of high school, I would do a little experiment.
The first was, rather than sitting in the back of the room and quietly making fun of the smart kids, I would sit in the front of the room and see what it was like to be one of the smart kids. I actually took my books home at night and my notes who knew? and I reviewed the lessons of the day.
I actually did extra homework, rather than a minimum amount of homework. I signed up for all of the most advanced courses, which in the case of BC Calculus, meant getting a special waiver to take pre-calculus concurrently with BC Calculus, rather than sequentially.
I did tell you I was coasting. Then finally, I made a little pact with myself that I wouldn’t go out on the weekend to have fun unless I had done exceptionally well at school the prior week. Well, this experiment worked really, really well.
I got straight A+es. OK, I got a pass in trampoline, but otherwise, I got straight A+es, and I must say, prior to that, my relationship with grades had been grades are something you do to placate your parents and stay out of trouble.
That was my relationship with grades. I did this for myself and nobody else, and frankly, I was pretty proud of myself. Now, in those days, you could be a socalled late bloomer in high school and still get into a great university.
Sadly, that’s less true today. I applied to Harvard and got waitlisted, but I did get into MIT, Duke, and a few other schools. I walked into the den one way where my father was sitting, and I said, “Dad, I really think I want to go to MIT.”
He put his scotch down, and he said, “Don’t you have to be really good in math to get into MIT?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Well, I’m going to give you a math problem. If you go to Duke, I’ll pay your tuition. If you go to MIT, you’ll pay your tuition.”
I didn’t really need Deerfield-God math to figure out that math problem, so clearly, I was going to Duke. In fairness, I was already having second thoughts about a career in computer science or mathematics.
I didn’t want a job where a typical day was staring at equations on a blackboard. I didn’t want to be in some back room writing computer code for a commercial and industrial applications. I will admit, I simply did not see the personal computer revolution that was around the corner, which is to say, I was no Steve Jobs and no Bill Gates.
I was thinking, “Maybe I need to do something else,” and medicine started to look attractive to me. I thought, “Well, if I’m going to go into medicine, maybe Duke’s not such a bad choice after all.” I go to Duke, and the first week of school, I’m meeting the other boys on my hallway.
This tall, handsome boy walks up to me and says, “Hi, I’m so-and-so. I went to Deerfield.” Nothing, so he tries again. “No, really. I went to Deerfield.” Still nothing. Then I said, I’m thinking, “Am I supposed to genuflect here? I don’t know what this is.”
Then I say something stupid like, “Well, where is that?” Of course, in disgust and horror, he says, “Deerfield.” That was the end of our budding bromance. I tell you that, because it’s certainly the case that, moving forward, you’re going to meet kids who are less sophisticated than you are and haven’t had some of the advantages that you have had.
Your inclination is going to be on occasion to underestimate these people. I’m telling you, sometimes that’s going to be a big mistake. In the interest of full disclosure, I was as leery of him as he was of me, because I told you, I went to public school.
I think my father, to justify sending us to public school, used to brainwash us that the only kids that went to boarding schools were kids who were juvenile delinquents or unloved. I’m trying to give you some sense of what it was like to live in my household.
I’m now at Duke, and to be honest, I met quite a few kids who, at least in hindsight, head peaked academically in high school. Now, some of these kids, to be fair, had just reached the point where hard work wasn’t enough.
Most of these kids had gone to high schools that were not as good as Deerfield and not as good as my high school. They had simply been big fish in a small pond up to now. A surprising number of the students, I thought, took their foot off the gas.
I think in some cases, they were tired, they were burned out, or maybe in some cases, they thought that getting into college was the end of the game, whereas I thought getting into college was the beginning of the game.
The next lesson is don’t peak early. Don’t peak in high school. Don’t peak in college. You always want to feel like you’re improving yourself, and you always want to feel like the most important thing you’re ever going to do still lies ahead of you.
I majored in mathematics you can guess why and chemistry at Duke. I took as little biology, frankly, as possible, and still qualified as a premed. With my new study habits, I’m completely rocking it. I’m off the charts gradewise.
Then my junior year, someone said, “If you’re going to apply to medical school, it would look really good if you worked in a laboratory.” I met with this one chemistry professor who told me had this one particular project, and seven undergraduates had worked on this project before, and they had all gotten into medical school.
I left this office thinking, “I have found the golden ticket to medical school.” Of course, I agreed to work in his lab the following summer and the fall of my senior year. Now, if I was a little bit smarter, a little bit wiser, I might have asked, “Well, why couldn’t these other seven undergraduates bring this project to completion?”
I became the eighth undergraduate who couldn’t bring this project to completion. I was completely unsupervised. I went out to sea, and then I had the audacity during my last lab meeting to say correctly that I thought this project would never be completed because it was based on an artifact or a mistake that had occurred many years ago in the laboratory.
Christmas Eve day of my senior year, a special delivery letter arrived at my home in Fairfield, Connecticut. It was my grade from my first laboratory experience. Now, I must say, for years, when I told this story, I used to say, “I got a C+,” because that didn’t sound quite so bad. It’s almost a B.
When I won the Nobel Prize, I pulled my Duke transcript and saw that I had actually gotten a C. Clearly, this was so traumatic I needed to mentally upgrade. “Well, a C+, that’s close to a B.” No, you effectively got a D.
Then, to add a further punitive flourish, my professor wrote in the margin, “Mr. Kaelin appears to be a bright young man whose future lies outside of the laboratory,” which is sort of like being told you have a good face for radio.
That’s not what you want to hear when you’re a young scientist. Be that as it may, despite the C, I’m miraculously still Phi Beta Kappa. I’m summa cum laude. I win the math prize, so I apply to Harvard Medical School, which at the time was the number one medical school in the country.
I didn’t even get an invitation letter. Ah. Fortunately, I did get into Duke Medical School, which at the time was ranked third. I figured, well, Duke has better weather, and they have a much better basketball team, so on balance, I’m still coming out ahead.
Now, my first year of medical school and this was especially true prior to smartphones involved a mindnumbing amount of memorization. I really thought I had made a mistake going into medicine and was thinking maybe I should have gone into math after all.
Fortunately, in our second year of medical school, we went onto the wards. We could see medicine come to life, and we could see why we had done all that memorization. Then, in my third year as part of the medical school curriculum, you were strongly encouraged to work in a laboratory, which I, again with trepidation, did.
I began to learn how tumors obtain a blood supply so that they can get oxygen. Tuck that away. Oxygen, something about oxygen. I do very well at Duke. I’m thinking I want to go into internal medicine. The top internal medicine residency program at that time was Massachusetts General Hospital, which was a Harvard affiliate.
I’m feeling pretty good about myself. I’m at the thirdbest medical school in the country. I am Alpha Omega Alpha, which is the equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa. I had published a couple papers, and most importantly of all, my first cousin, who lived in Brookline, was the mixed doubles partner in tennis with the Chairman of Internal Medicine at Mass General Hospital at her country club.
I’m figuring, “OK, finally, the fix is in, ladies and gentlemen. I’m going to Mass General.” Of course, I ranked Mass General first. Several weeks later, I open up my envelope, and it says I have matched at the Johns Hopkins Hospital of Baltimore, Maryland, which had been my second choice.
Now, my mother God love her was a glasshalffull kind of woman. She was an eternal optimist, and her view was, “You know, things just have a way of working out the way they should.” Was this ever a great example.
First of all, I can’t imagine getting better clinical training than I got at Johns Hopkins.
I thrived so much that I was asked to be the chief medical resident, which is the highest honor that a resident can be given. Staying that extra year to be a chief resident was profoundly important. The first reason was, when you’re the chief resident, you’re supposed to be the alpha dog at all times.
If someone say, a resident or a student challenges your authority, you have to reestablish that you’re alpha. An easy way to do that is to pepper them with questions about rare, obscure diseases that they’ve never heard of until you’ve at least figuratively beaten them back into submission.
I knew lots about diseases like Von HippelLindau disease, which is a rare hereditary cancer syndrome that affects about 1 in 35,000 people. Generation after generation after generation, 50 percent of the family members develop cancer at an early age because of a defective gene that’s being passed from generation to generation to generation.
The much more important reason, however, that that year was transformative in my life was that was the year I met my brilliant, beautiful late wife, Carolyn Kaelin, who became the mother of my two magnificent children, including Kathryn and Tripp, who’s not here, who later went on to Deerfield.
Carolyn, of course, became my partner and soul mate in life. Parenthetically, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a prouder Deerfield mom in my life. Carolyn spent countless hours, for example, at the Dewey Squash Courts, watching the kids play competitive squash.
Perhaps most importantly of all, and I suspect most of you don’t know this, Carolyn was a surgeon, but on the side, she started doing library research about how much sleep people like you need when you’re in schools.
It was my wife Carolyn who came to Margarita Curtis, who was then head of school, and convinced her to try an experiment of moving the school day from 8:00 to 8:30 am. I think you know that turned out pretty well. You don’t owe my anything.
I guess that’s popular. You don’t owe me anything, but frankly, if I was you, I’d erect a statue in her honor out on the quadrangle. Now, I’m finishing my internal medicine training. I decided I wanted to go into medical oncology to be a cancer specialist.
I looked at number of programs. Some offered great clinical training, but the science wasn’t quite so good. Some offered great scientific training, but the clinical training was mezza mezza. There were a few places that offered great clinical training and great science, one of which was the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
This is another lesson now. Don’t burn bridges unnecessarily. I was pretty sure I was going to be a clinical doctor, but I thought, “Why not keep that optionality open?” Much to my surprise, this time, I got into a Harvard-affiliated institution. I guess the fourth time was the charm.
As I had hoped, as soon as I got to the Dana Farber, I was surrounded by brilliant, talented people who make me better every day, reminiscent of that experience I had down at FAU. I finished my clinical training at the Dana Farber, and it’s very clear after finishing my clinical training that, for most cancer patients, unfortunately, the therapies were completely inadequate.
The only path forward was to do research to understand the disease better and then try to kill it. Although I didn’t see the personal computer revolution coming, I did see the molecular biology revolution coming. I decided to take one more chance.
I went to work for a young faculty member who had just started their laboratory. His name was Shelly Berstein. He had just won a MacArthur Award, which is often referred to as a genius prize. I worked with him for four months.
Then one day I could see he looked very serious. He called me into his office, and I’m like, “Uh-oh.” He said, “Bill, I just don’t know how to tell you this, but I can’t do this anymore. I’m shutting down my laboratory, and I’m going to go into private practice.”
This seemed pretty inauspicious. I’ve already been told that I shouldn’t be doing science, but apparently, I can make other people quit science. How many more signs do I need? Fortunately, through sheer dumb luck, I did wind up being trained by another physician-scientist named David Livingston, who’s absolutely brilliant.
He’s the one who trained me to be a scientist. If everything was wrong in my first lab, everything was now right in this lab. I had a great project, a great mentor, but that’s not to say everything was easy. When you’re doing science on the cutting edge, there’s a lot of frustration.
Most of your experiments don’t work, or at least they don’t work the way you had hoped. I remember one week when I was with David, I was having a particularly bad week. I remember I was finishing up for the day. I was sitting at the socalled tissue culture hood, feeding the cells I was growing on plastic dishes.
I just said to myself, “This is ridiculous. I spent years to become a clinical doctor. I’m a really good clinical doctor. I like being a clinical doctor, and frankly, I could have a really good life as a clinical doctor. Why am I being this square peg, trying to go into a round hole, dealing with all this frustration, trying to become a scientist?”
I determined, “OK, the next morning, I’m going to quit.” Just then, out of nowhere, these tears started streaming down, which I wasn’t used to as a 30yearold man. I’m like, “Where is this coming from?” Then immediately, I saw where the tears were coming from.
The tears were coming because I realized in an instant, everything I had ever done, and everything I had been through was to get me to this moment, where there was a special door that was being invited to walk through.
Yet, instead of walking through that door, I was now threatening to close that door, and I was prepared to walk away. I knew if I closed that door and walked away, I’d spend the rest of my life wondering whether I actually could have done something exceptional.
I regrouped. I decided to stick it out. I finished in David’s lab. I started my own laboratory in 1992, and then in 1993, a group at the National Cancer Institute isolated that gene that, when defective, gives rise to that Von Hippel Lindau syndrome that was causing all those cancers.
I knew from my extensive clinical training that these tumors these patients were developing produced the distress signals that you or I would make if we weren’t getting enough oxygen, such as if we went to the top of Mt. Everest.
The assumption, which turned out to be correct, was that the VHL protein that is, the protein made with the instructions in the VHL gene had to be a critical node in the circuit that allows you to sense and respond to changes in oxygen.
You might say, “Well, why does that matter?” Well, of course, oxygen, as you just heard, is fundamental to life. Too little oxygen, you’re going to die. Too much oxygen, and you’re going to die. Your body needs to have a way to sense and respond to changes in oxygen.
I also knew from my clinical training that a lot of diseases are caused or relate to changes in oxygen. Anemia, you can’t carry enough oxygen in your blood. Heart attack and stroke, you’re not delivering enough oxygen to your heart and brain.
Even as I mentioned, cancers to grow have to steal oxygen from patients so that they can grow. Over about the next eight years, we worked out the mechanism. By 2001, we had worked out the mechanism that allows you to sense and respond to changes in oxygen, as did my fellow laureate working independently, Sir Peter Ratcliffe.
When we looked at the mechanism, it was surprisingly simple and elegant, and at least to a scientist, beautiful. Of course, that’s not a tribute to us. That’s a tribute to nature. It became immediately apparent that every animal on the planet is using the same system.
If you see a bird or a squirrel today, it’s using the same system. It’s also clear, or it was clear, there were several places we could intervene with drugs to now treat various diseases in fundamentally new ways. As you heard, this led to my winning the Nobel Prize in 2019, together with Sir Peter Ratcliffe and Greg Semenza.
I will tell you, it was bittersweet because I had lost my wife to cancer in 2015. I had always assumed if I was lucky enough to win the Nobel Prize, she would be with me. At least I had my two wonderful children with me. I can tell you, Deerfield was very well-represented in Stockholm in 2019.
Now, part of the reason I told you this narrative is I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that my becoming a scientist and my winning the Nobel Prize can be mapped back to the pro-science policies and pro-science rhetoric that I had grown up with.
Now, I’m not going to make this too political, but suffice it to say, I’m very concerned that some of the messages around science coming out of Washington lately, at least in my view, are a bit complicated. Let’s put it that way.
When you think of the debate, for example, around climate change, or even how we were going to handle the COVID-19. I think we have to be very, very careful, because I’m quite sure that the young people of today are listening and watching those messages the same way I was listening and watching for messages as a young boy growing up in the ’60s and ’70s.
Growing up in the Sputnik era, for example, I never imagined I would live to see the day where an American politician, let alone a president, would through an American scientist under the bus simply to score some short-term political points.
Just in case you’re interested, the year I did win the Nobel Prize, the White House broke tradition and actually did not invite the American laureates to visit the White House. Now, again, my point here isn’t that I so desperately needed to go to the White House.
Frankly, I was slightly relieved. The point is we should be celebrating science at every possible opportunity. We have a choice. We can celebrate American science, or we can celebrate the MyPillow guy. It’s our choice. I can tell you which choice our enemies are hoping for.
By the way, we don’t have the luxury of relying exclusively on the smart young kids who have had the privilege of going to the Deerfields of the world. We have to find scientific talent wherever it is and nurture it and support it.
If you think this doesn’t matter, I learned years ago that a central tenet of US defense policy my entire life has been what the Pentagon calls “technological overmatch,” which at its heart is based on the assumption that the scientists and engineers who work for us namely, the good guys are smarter and better than the scientists and engineers who work for the bad guys.
I’m here to tell you that’s not based on some immutable law of nature. The reason we find ourselves in this very happy circumstance is because of decades and decades of federal support for education, research, wise policies, and wise messaging.
I really think Obama was right when he said we need another Sputnik moment. I fleetingly thought COVID was going to be that moment until even that became politicized, but we do need another Sputnik moment. If you don’t believe me, come with me on my next trip to China.
When I go to China, one of the first things that happens is I get an entourage of bodyguards to keep the autographseekers away from me, the selfie line people, the people who want to come work in my laboratory at all costs, because they’re having that experience now.
They are celebrating science, and they revere their scientists and engineers. We must never, ever lose that. In closing, I’ve never met a successful person who didn’t have some failures, rejections, disappointments along the way, and I’ve tried to share at least some of mine.
For the members of the Class of 2021, for those of you who got into your first-choice school, congratulations. I actually think the lucky ones are actually the people who didn’t, because first of all, there are lots of places where you can get a great education.
You’ve now been handed this precious motivational fuel to show your doubters just how wrong they were. Now, if you’re wondering, well, how good does it make you feel when you prove your doubters wrong, such as that chemist who thought I should never work in laboratory again, let’s do an experiment. It feels pretty damn good.