Dr. Harold E. Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health and co-winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes, was invited to campus by UNC’s Nobel Laureate Dr. Oliver Smithies.
On Friday, April 19, the third annual Oliver Smithies Nobel Symposium was held at the School of Medicine’s MBRB Auditorium before a capacity crowd of students, post-doctoral fellows, and other university community members.
The keynote speaker at this year’s symposium was Dr. Harold E. Varmus, MD, director of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health and co-winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes.
In keeping with the goals of the symposium, Dr. Varmus shared inspiring stories about the people who influenced him and highlighted the critical experiences and driving forces that led to his successes. Dr. Varmus also discussed the development of his passion for discovery and how interpersonal relationships can influence the quality of a scientist’s work. Science, when conducted in the most exciting ways, Dr. Varmus told the audience, involves partnerships, friendly rivalries, and a wide spectrum of human relationships.
While the 90-minute lecture shed light on Dr. Varmus’s studies of the genetic basis of cancer, it also revealed the interdisciplinary path of his career, which began with a love for and dedication to literature, specifically to the work of Charles Dickens and to seventeenth-century English poets and essayists. Varmus received his master’s degree in English from Harvard University in 1962.
“It’s trite to say, but being familiar with literature influences how I live and how I relate to life around me,” said Varmus.
Intellectual diversity and interdisciplinary interests match the vision of the Smithies Symposium.
“This event is not particular to the School of Medicine,” said Dr. Smithies, whose genetics research earned him the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. “It is for the university as a whole. It’s meant to inspire other lecturers to come to campus and speak to our students. I believe it has the potential to have an impact across disciplines and across the university.”
Dr. Smithies believes that the symposium offers all UNC students an opportunity to learn from those who have made major contributions to their fields. He credits similar lectures he attended as a young man for inspiring his rigor as a scientist.
“The symposium is an attempt to expose students to people who have made remarkable discoveries and impacted science,” said Smithies. “I had the same experience when I was a student and Linus Pauling came to Oxford University, and that was before he won either of his Nobel Prizes. But he was an inspiring lecturer and I hope that the same sort of inspiration I received will be given to other students.”
Post-doctoral fellows from multidisciplinary backgrounds across the university participated in the selection of Dr. Varmus, who was honored to be chosen, in large part because of his respect for the UNC’s Smithies.
“I admire Oliver greatly,” said Varmus. “His dedication to rigorous science is the main reason I came for the lecture. Of course, I also came because North Carolina is a nice place to visit.”
Date: April 25, 2013