Dr. Jeffrey Medin ('85) Commencement Address

Published: December 16, 2014

Dr. Jeffrey Medin ('85 biological sciences) was the featured speaker for the UW-Parkside Winter 2014 Commencement. Dr. Medin is a senior scientist at the University Health Network in Toronto with appointments at the Ontario Cancer Institute, the Toronto General Research Institute, and the Toronto Western Research Institute. He was honored in 2010 with the Alumni Association Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award.

Dr. Medin's career has taken him around the world including more than a dozen visits to Italy to lecture and teach. He has enjoyed 50-year-old port in a medieval palace in Spain, dined in the Reichstag Building in Berlin, and met the Emperor of Japan in Tokyo. "But you know what? It all started here," he says, "it all started with my graduation from UWP."

Many thanks to Chancellor Ford for the invitation to be a part of this day. It is a great honor to be back at Parkside and to share these accomplishments with you. It is especially fitting to be back in this building; some of my best memories came out of my involvement in athletics at UWP.

It may have been a long time ago, but I remember sitting in these same stands and enjoying this same commencement event from your perspective. I remember thinking: Who is this guy and is he ever going to stop talking so that I can actually get my degree and get on with the celebration? I may have had much more hair then and a few less pounds – for confirmation of that you can see my old photos on the walls of this Sports & Activity Center -- but the excitement and anticipation was the same. Again it is really great to be back here in this context.

I just want to make a couple of simple points and then I will get out of the way and let you get on with your future.

Point 1) "You have made it a long ways just on hard work." What? What a curious statement!? Let me say this again: "You have made it a long ways just on hard work." So where did this come from and why is this relevant here?

Turns out these were comments I received in a performance review a short time ago from a Cornell, Rockefeller grad/Harvard professor that moved to Toronto to head an Institute. I'm sure his statement to me was meant to be derogatory; in contrast, I take it as a badge of honor.

It encompasses a couple of things: You HAVE made it a long ways. Even he had to acknowledge that. Thus, I MUST have been smart enough to know hard work is good; among other things. I ask you: How many smart people have NOT made it very far? We have all come a long ways. Everyone has a different and interesting story. I have many colleagues and collaborators that went to the finest private prep schools and then Ivy League universities. We are not those people. We have side jobs; we have families; we go to night school; and we ride public transportation. I was like the majority of you – the first in my family to go to a university. Further, I had absolutely no money when I went to Parkside. I had to live loan-by-loan. Was even able to attend here only because of the help of a local family: Stirling and Vi Hubbard of Kenosha that let me live very cheaply in their spare room and even provided me some meals.

Yet through that "bad thing" called hard work -- I have been able to level the playing field and accomplish some things in my life. Parkside prepared me very well for a career in biomedical research and for life in general. 

For the last few years, I have been fortunate to have space to take on some summer students from UWP into my research lab in Toronto. They come into a very competitive environment; indeed they are in the lab with the best and brightest young people from all over Canada. And you know what? They hold their own. The Parkside students hold their own intellectually – AND they work hard. Makes me very proud to be a Parkside grad and I will continue this program as long as I can find funding to pay their small salaries.

From Parkside, I went on to the University of Kentucky. There I received my Ph.D. in biochemistry. Funny story – biochemistry was one of my worst classes at UWP. From there I went on to the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. There I was very fortunate to work with Dr. Roscoe Brady – who discovered the defect in four different diseases and the treatment for two. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Lasker and Kovalenko award winner. A fantastic mentor: indeed we are still in contact to this day. Speaking of hard work, Dr. Brady is in his 90s and still goes to work every day -- simply because he loves it and cannot imagine doing anything else. He is still generating ideas, planning experiments, writing papers, going to meetings, etc.

This brings me to Point 2) Don't stop here. 

You cannot stop here. You can do even more. Keep growing and learning and living. Take risks. You do not know yet how much you can accomplish; how much you can endure. Push yourself. Don't make excuses, either. Make personnel connections sure; but also be about content. Don't be a poser.

When I was at the NIH in Bethesda, my wife, Debbie, and I decided to try to jog around the track at the gym once. She says she made it but I did not; here is where being married for 28 years affects your memory. Nonetheless -- this was only one lap. Thought that was a bit silly after being an athlete here at Parkside -- so we started jogging. And jogging and jogging. Then I decided we should do a race to give us something to train for. Started with a 10-miler. Barely finished. Then I had the brilliant idea: I should train for a marathon. Even being slow of foot and having the opposite body type of most successful runners.  I'll just do it once and check it off my bucket list, I figured. 

So I started running more. And more. I read up on the topic, talked to people in the sport, and eventually got over 20 miles in my training runs. Then came the first marathon. It was awful. Horrible. But I finished. So then I said: Now I have to do another one to prove to myself that the first one was not a fluke. Followed that logic for a while and ended up completing 34 full marathons -- before a health condition ended that pursuit.

Again: Don't stop here. Keep climbing; keep pushing yourself. My labs are working on gene therapy for an inherited disease and to create cancer vaccines. We hope to be undertaking "first-in-the-world" clinical trials for both in 2015. What will happen if our clinical trials are successful? After we cure Fabry disease, for example, do we quit? Nope – there are 6,999 more inherited single gene disorders to cure. I will check this one off the list and move on.

I'd like to finish with a quote from another Midwesterner. Born in South Dakota but lived most of his life in my home state of Minnesota, Hubert H. Humphrey. Here it is: "You can always debate about what you should have done. The question is -- what are you going to do?"

Savor this day and relish in this moment of accomplishment. Through hard work and sacrifice you have gotten to this point. Be proud of your achievements and proud of the fact that you have graduated from UW-Parkside. I am.

Celebrate today. Then tomorrow get up and take on new challenges. "The question is: What are you going to do?"  

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