NIH Chief Will Speak At Commencement

Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will be the speaker at Harvard's 35th Commencement on June 6, according to yesterday's Harvard University Gazette.

Varmus was a professor of microbiology, biochemistry and biophysics and the American Cancer Society Professor of Molecular Virology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) before joining the NIH in 1993, according to a statement released by the NIH Office of Communications.

In 1989, Varmus and J. Michael Bishop, M.D., also from UCSF, won the Nobel in physiology of medicine for "demonstrating that cancer genes (oncogenes) can arise from normal cellular genes, called proto-oncogenes," the NIH statement said.

Despite Varmus' reputation as a brilliant researcher and the advances he has made in the field of medicine, many seniors expressed regret that a better-known speaker was not chosen.

"I'm sure he's very important, but it's a little disappointing," Mathew W. Strack '96 said.

Other seniors responded with such comments as, "Who is he?" and "Wow, that's boring. Everyone else got someone exciting."

"Compared to previous years, this is going to be a big letdown. Especially in a presidential year, you'd think that we'd get one of the candidates," said Meloney L. McGuire '96, echoing the sentiments of many of her classmates.

Others were more optimistic. Though they had not previously been aware of Varmus' work, some seniors said they feel he will be an informative speaker.

"I'd be pretty interested to hear him speak," one anonymous senior said, citing the recent focus on health care.

And one class representative said that the choice of Varmus sends an important political message.

"All the premeds in our class are very excited. He represents a nice departure from standard heads of state, especially when research funding is being challenged," said First Class Marshal Peter S. Cahn '96. "It sends a message that it is important to do research."

Other recent Commencement speakers include the president of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel, Vice President Al Gore '69, former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland.

Varmus is no stranger to Harvard, having received an M.A. in English literature in 1962 from the University, after earning a B.A. in English literature at Amherst College in 1961. After his stint at Harvard, he went to Columbia University for his M.D. in 1966.

In his most recent research, Varmus studied mammary tumors in mice in the hopes of learning more about the biochemical properties of HIV and breast cancer.

Varmus is the author or editor of four books and more than 300 papers.

His most recent book, Genes and the Biology of Cancer, intended for a general audience, was co-authored with Robert Weinberg for the Scientific American Library, the NIH statement said