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May 18, 2000

Commencement 2000

"Your driving force should always be wonder, which I define as curiosity and doubt," Herbert W. Boyer told degree recipients at the University's 2000 commencement ceremony April 30. "Wonder is what sets us apart from all other life forms."

Boyer was the featured speaker at the Mellon Arena where Pitt conferred nearly 6,000 degrees, including almost 400 doctorates.

A pioneer in biotechnology, Boyer earned his Ph.D. in bacteriology at Pitt in 1963. In the early 1970s, while on the faculty of the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco, Boyer and geneticist Stanley Cohen created the means to cut apart and combine DNA, launching the new scientific field of recombinant DNA technology, or gene splicing.

In 1976, Boyer and the late venture capitalist Robert A. Swanson co-founded Genentech, Inc., a leader in using human genetic information to develop, manufacture and market pharmaceuticals.

"The opportunity to take an arcane observation, research its molecular basis, and then apply it to an industry that is not only helping to treat serious illnesses but to contribute to the biomedical sciences gives me a deep sense of gratification," Boyer said. "Today I marvel at the advances of the last few decades."

After the opening of the commencement ceremony by Carol K. Redmond, University marshal and vice president of the University Senate, and the traditional procession of faculty and administrative officers in academic regalia, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg welcomed the 15,000 faculty, graduates, family and friends of the University in attendance.

The chancellor introduced Boyer as "a man of abiding compassion and humanitarian pursuits," who "changed the shape of 20th-century science and technology." Nordenberg added that the technology of genetic engineering pioneered by Boyer gave science "the ability to alter the basic stuff of life, to create substances which prevent disease and combat crippling genetic disorders; in short, to save and enhance human lives."

Referring to the founding of Genentech, the chancellor said, "It is typical of Herb's gracious nature that this deal was struck over a mug of beer in a local pub; that this scene is immortalized in bronze statues on the Genentech campus — where scientists frequently drop pennies in the bronze mugs for good luck."

Boyer said, "I cannot help but think that I have been indeed privileged to live and participate in a most astonishing time," referring to the 1953 structural analysis of DNA with its consequences for the field of biotechnology. "This most elegant yet simple chemical structure provided the theoretical framework for molecular research for several decades."

Reflecting on changes he's seen since his graduate studies at Pitt, Boyer told the new graduates, "When I was a student we used a slide rule for our calculations. I recall that one of the first punch card IBM computers was installed on one floor of the Cathedral of Learning and presented with great fanfare."

Since then, he said, humans have witnessed successful organ transplants, moon voyages and exploration of the solar system, in addition to advances in biotechnology un-thought-of in his student days.

"Atoms now linked together in a single strand of DNA were once inside different stars spread around the galaxy or dispersed in the medium between those stars. If biologists were poets we might even say that we are stardust, the ashes of long dead stars. It is the complexity, life, not the sheer size, the universe, that makes a system difficult to understand."

Boyer sent the class of 2000 out into the world with this thought: "I have enough experience to know that those of you who will take our place are better prepared than we were 40 years ago. You, too, in the not too distant future, will, as I have, look back on your life with astonishment."

Following Boyer's remarks, the chancellor awarded him an honorary Doctor of Science degree.

Graduates from the 16 degree-granting schools on the Pittsburgh campus then were recognized and awarded degrees.

Roars of approval followed each school's conferral of degrees, including the traditional confetti eruption from pharmacy graduates.

Provost James V. Maher presided over individual recognition of doctorate recipients, as those present were named by their school's dean or associate dean and asked to come to the podium.

Graduates who earned bachelor's or master's degrees then filed to the commencement stage to receive their diploma facsimiles.

Nordenberg acknowledged and thanked those who contributed to the success of the graduates, asking family members, faculty and staff members to stand and be recognized.

Jessica Mae Sapalio, new graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences, delivered remarks on behalf of the students, and Cynthia Roth, president of the Pitt Alumni Association, welcomed the new graduates into the ranks of the alumni.

The University's Chamber Orchestra, directed by Roger Zahab, provided the musical accompaniment.

Soloist Julie L. Eyer, CAS class of 2001, led the congregation in the singing of the National Anthem and the Alma Mater.

–Peter Hart

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