Dr. Kiessling gives 2014 commencement to 25,000 at Oregon State University

Update June 15, 2014: Commencement Address a Success
Despite a prank from University of Oregon, Dr. Kiessling’s message about taking an active role in government hit home with the largest graduating class in OSU history. read more…

Update June 18, 2014: Pilot of the “Go Ducks” Plane to Donate $500 to Bedford Research
“We knew that the “Go Ducks !” message would be controversial, but we never imagined the depth of the offense our error in judgment has caused.” read more…

Previous speakers include: Michelle Obama, Major General Julie A. Bentz, PhD., and Jon DeVaan (Microsoft).

Video Transcription:

Dr. Ann A. Kiessling, OSU 2014 Graduation Commencement, Oregon State University

President Ray:

Dr. Ann A. Kiessling, The Degree, Doctor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Honoris Causa, in testimony thereof, you will be invested with the hood and presented with the diploma.

I now have the great honor and privileged to introduce to you, OSU’s 2014 Commencement Speaker, Dr. Ann A. Kiessling.

Dr. Kiessling:

Thank you very much, President Ray, Provost Randhawa, Brett Deedon, distinguished faculty and alumni, and most importantly, parents, family, friends and graduates. I am very proud to be standing before the largest graduating class in OSU history. Thank you very much for asking me to share this day with you. I am honored to be here.

Like many of you, I am a proud Oregonian. I was born in Baker, on my grandmother’s farm. I grew up in Klamath Falls, graduated from Klamath Union High School. And also, like you, I am a very proud OSU graduate. I was a Beavers fan before most of you were born.

In preparing for this talk today, I was reminded of my very first experience in public speaking. When I was a senior at Klamath Union High School, the Oregon Bar Association sponsored a Law Day Editorial Contest and my journalism teacher encouraged me to submit an editorial. To our surprise, it was chosen first in the state. And my journalism teacher and a local legislator went with me to a court room in Portland where I delivered my Law Day editorial. I was terrified. It became part of the Federal Register, which, as maybe you know as our Government’s Recordings Daily. Later that year, I was a freshman at Georgetown University in Washington DC and I had discovered that the very easiest way to write a term paper was to go to the Library of Congress, because even a nineteen year old at the Library of Congress could request reference materials and they would be brought to your carrel by a Library of Congress librarian.

On one of my visits there, I requested the Federal register that my Law Day editorial was recorded in. I vividly remember sitting in this beautiful old, wooden carrel in the Library of Congress reading my Law Day editorial and I became choked as I will probably become choked now at what a fabulous country I lived in, that the writings of a teenager from a small town in a western state could be part of a permanent record of our country. So my charge to you today, as you exit this exemplary campus of higher education is to stay involved with our wonderful, exceptional democracy. Protect this democracy. Appreciate it. Help guide it. Democracy only works…

Background: Loud BUZZING airplane sound. Audience noise.

Dr. Kiessling: What is it?

President Ray: A plane with a “Go Ducks” banner flew by us.

Dr. Kiessling: Go Beaves! Go Beaves!

Audience: Cheers.

Dr. Kiessling: This is a very good example of democracy at work.

Audience: Laughter.

Dr. Kiessling:

Democracy only works for the people, when it is truly of the people and by the people, all of the people. Each and every one of you can make a difference and each and every one of you shares the responsibility of active participation in this democracy. If it is to continue to afford your children and your grandchildren, the freedoms we have now (even to fly your plane). I’ll give you two examples of staying involve with your government from my own career:

In 1983, two medical events changed the world. AIDS was recognized as a sexually-transmitted disease and test-tube babies became standard of care. It’s possible that someone graduating today is a test-tube baby in Oregon. My research lab at that time is at Oregon Health and Sciences University. I had completed my undergraduate education on the east coast and had come west for my graduate degree. I was accepted for a doctorate at OSU in Biochemistry and Biophysics and I joined the laboratory of a scientist who is studying leukemia in chickens and it turned out to be a most exciting time in Biology.

During that time, something was discovered to reverse the flow of genetic information. This was an astounding new discovery. I got a phone call one day, from my mentor, who was in Prague, and he said that the virus has a reverse enzyme in it. Do an assay to prove it. That was actually a tall order because remember this was forty-six years ago. So to do what he wanted me to do, I had to first synthesize my own radioactive reagents. We wore lead aprons. We monitored our radioactive spills with hand-held Geiger counter and I remembered distinctly having to cover my footprints with aluminum foil in the hallway of Winegar Hall because a drop of radioactive phosphorous had gotten on my shoe and I had carried it all the way to the ladies room. Fortunately the half-life of radioactive phosphorus is only two weeks or that aluminum foil would still be there in Winegar Hall.

Winegar Hall was this wonderful place where everyone stayed in very good physical condition because even walking on four flights of stairs was faster than the elevator. Forty-six years ago, with one of my colleagues, we were enrolled in a brand new course on campus called Computer Programming. It was also the time when it was okay to store what was left on the beer keg in the laboratory cold room for the next time you needed it.

Once I got my reagents together, I did indeed do the assays Dr. Boudreau had asked but it turned out that nobody thought this was a virus trick. This was thought to be a very fundamental biology process that we didn’t understand. It was possible that it had something to do with early embryo development and I was very intrigued by this because the similarities between early embryo development and cancer are a lot. So I continued this work as a post doctorate, after I left OSU and I discovered that indeed, this reverse enzyme is present in all cells. And so with that, I took my first faculty position in the Department of Anatomy at Oregon Health and Sciences University and it was there I learned how to collect sperm and eggs from a mouse. Put them together in a dish so we could study embryo development from the very beginning.

In 1983, thirty years ago, everything changed. Everything got faster. AIDS was killing people and it was thought to be a sexually-transmitted retrovirus, similar to the one I had studied at OSU. Someone came to me and asked if we would consider analyzing some semen specimens from some sick men for the presence of this virus. “Sure!” I said. Not really thinking about it. The next thing we knew, a couple of these specimens showed up in the laboratory. I remember my laboratory technician and I looked at each other, we looked at the specimens, then we looked back at each other. We didn’t know where we could open them.

So I called the Dean, told him my predicament, how urgent the need was and I think because he didn’t want to continue the conversation, he said we’ll find you the money for a bio-safety cabinet. So I think to get me off the phone, we bought a bio-safety cabinet. We set it up at the back of the Anatomy Department and nobody bothered us. Shortly, thereafter, the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology decided they wanted to start a test-tube baby program. It would be the first in the state. I think it might have been the first in the North West. Since I was the only one in campus who knew how fertilize an egg, even though it was a mouse egg, they asked if I would help. Again I said, “Sure!” not really thinking this through. These two decisions to study AIDS and test-tube babies, would not only chart the rest of my career, but came to the attention of the Harvard Medical School who began to recruit me.

A couple of years later, I moved four children, a pet guinea pig, a pet turtle, three 4-H goats and the family donkey to Boston. The hope was that I would have more resources there to study test-tube babies but this was not to be for political reasons. While, Great Britain had debated the morality of fertilizing human eggs in the laboratory, the US had done nothing. Great Britain had put into place guidelines to oversee this research, to proceed cautiously with a lot of oversight. The US had done nothing. Even more egregious than the lack of legislative interest, was the fact that researchers and clinicians involved in this new medical specialty also did nothing.

We stayed in our laboratories and we bemoaned the fact that there were no resources for this incredibly important women and children health issue. In stark contrast to this, at the same time, was the proactive approach of men and women dying of AIDS, they formed very effective lobbying organizations and your HIV status remained anonymous so that you would not lose your jobs and you would not lose your health insurance. The rights, for the first time in US history, the rights of an individual to privacy superseded the rights of public health. So a person’s HIV status was not reported to local Public Health Departments. Even more effective was their lobbying on National Institute of Health. They went to the campus in Bethesda and they demanded research on drugs to cure their disease and it was effective.

So for the first time in US history, our National Institute of Health funded drug discovery which had always been left to pharmaceutical companies. Because of that effective political action, two dozen new drugs were developed in two decades. This is an unprecedented rate of new drug discovery. This indicates to stay involve with your government. Because of the lack of political actions by researchers and clinicians about the test-tube baby program, when embryonic stem cells were discovered in 1998, the debate was ruckus; it was nasty and it was polarizing. Because Great Britain and other countries already had this debate, they were positioned to put in research guidelines. The US was not positioned to do that.

President Bill Clinton had promised to try to redo the guidelines surrounding studies of fertilized human eggs but in his second term he got busy with other matters. So when President George Bush signed the Presidential Executive Order to allow federal funds to be used for embryonic stem cell research, he was indeed the first president to do so. Barrack Obama lifted more stem cells funding restrictions but not all of them. To this day, in this country with federal dollars you cannot study a fertilized human egg. And more over, because of a quirky law, you cannot study stem cells derived from unfertilized human eggs which is the focus of our research. This is why we had to establish an independent research foundation to keep this work moving forward. Stay involved with your government, either at the local level, the state level or the federal level.

I became involved in drafting the stem cell legislation for Massachusetts and I’ve served for the Stem Cell Advisory Boards for California and Connecticut. These efforts have taken me out of the comfort of my laboratory but they have strengthened my belief that scientists, like everyone, need to be involved in public dialogs about ethical research and the legislation that guides it. Scary stories sell newspapers, especially online. As you recall, Linus Pauling, was a politically-active scientist. Although he was greatly criticized, he used the power of his Nobel Prize in Chemistry to lobby the government to put in place much safer guidelines for nuclear power research.

If something is important, don’t wait for someone else to do it. Get it done. Your OSU education has equipped you to take on the hard problems. I know this because my OSU education equipped me to take on the hard problems. Understand you may fail, plot the course as carefully as you can, and then press on. Bouncing back from failure is as important as striving for success. I speak from experience.

When we started the first program to assist HIV infected couples to safely have children, it was highly criticized. And when we established the first egg donor program for stem cell research, it was highly criticized.

Our home in Massachusetts is about five miles from where the revolutionary war began and we are regularly reminded of the unique and unprecedented idealism that formed our constitution and our bill of rights. The selflessness of the forefathers who formed a government based on that idealism.

Today, personal selflessness is in stark contrast to many governments. Our remarkable democracy, as a scientist, seems a most successful experiment in self-governance. But do not take it for granted. I was recently inducted in the Thomas Jefferson Society, which happens when you get old. A farmer at heart, Jefferson relentlessly sought to balance individual and state’s rights against the power of the central government. This is a healthy debate. It’s at the heart of a responsive democracy. When president, he used his federal powers to the fullest, he doubled the size of our nation. But as a private citizen and farmer, he argued against a strong central government. So maintaining the balance between government and its duties to its citizens and the rights of private citizens and states in the democracy remains a necessary and healthy debate for all generations.

Your education in this extraordinary State University is law auditory and it marks the beginning of your responsible citizenship. No matter what your chosen field is, stay involved with your government. So that in forty-six years, when one of you returns to give this commencement address, you will still be living in the democracy based on the idealism of our founding fathers.

In closing, I offer this advice. If it’s important, don’t wait for someone else to do it. Avoiding failure is important but learning how to bounce when you do fail is even more important. Strive to be an active, helpful and generous citizen. In the words of one American writer and philosopher, “Finish big!” My hearty congratulations to you all!

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