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Ho Inspires Graduates With Personal History

By Aileen Tang
Staff Reporter

Prominent AIDS researcher David D. Ho spoke about the satisfaction and humanitarian benefits of scientific discoveries in his address to the aspiring scientists and engineers and soon-to-be graduates at Commencement.

Ho called for society and government's commitment to basic scientific research and noted the indelible contributions that immigrants had bestowed on the American society.

A member of the third graduating class of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Science and Technology program in 1978, Ho began his speech by saying, "It's great to be back." Ho briefly attended MITas an undergraduate before transferring to the California Institute of Technology.

Ho said HSTwas "where I truly learned to tackle research with a multidisciplinary approach. I will forever be indebted to you."

Ho was one of the first scientists to recognize that AIDS was a virus when he encountered some of the first reported cases of the disease in 1981. In the early 1990s, he began to work with chemicals known as protease inhibitors that had the potential to block replication of the virus, which had already become a global epidemic.

Three years later, infected patients were given protease inhibitor as part of three-drug cocktails which proved effective in the curtailing the replication of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"Unmatched were the joy and amazement as we watched the level of HIV fall, ever so dramatically," Ho said. These signs overturned what scientists had believed for years: rather than remaining dormant within the body as a latent virus, HIV begins replication upon infection. Ho's work resulted in the discovery not only of an AIDS drug but also of a new way of treatment, which tackled the virus in the early stages rather than waiting until its outbreak.

Ho's research earned him the Time Man of the Year distinction in 1996. He shared with graduates the merits of scientific achievements. Describing the "incredible, ensuing intellectual satisfaction" that came along with making discoveries about the virus, Ho said, "when the answers are simple, then you hear God thinking."

Despite the recent breakthroughs, Ho pointed out that "AIDS is not over." Science, however, provides hope and inspiration for "government, academia, and the private sector to remain vigilant and to re-double our efforts to bring an end to this tragedy."

Scientific work important

Ho emphasized the importance and influence of a scientist's work, giving examples of many historic scientific breakthroughs. He later asked the audience to "imagine the excitement that must have pervaded this campus when the synthesis of DNA was first achieved from an RNA template."

Noting society's lack of recognition for scientists and engineers whose deeply involved work earned them the label "nerds," he placed a mission on the graduates. "Bring back the spark, that sense of wonder about nature that lies deep within every citizen."

He urged the graduates to "stay in the forefront of your chosen field, and never permit the excellence of your work to be compromised" but to "continue to let imagination and creativity percolate throughout your lives."

As an individual who had excelled in his own field, Ho attributed his achievements to his Asian heritage.

Having had to deal with being an immigrant from Taiwan living in America, Ho said "To this day, i maintain the underdog mentality that motivates me to a higher level of work ethic."

The audience of over 12,000 ignited with applause when he closed with a comment that recognized the contributions that immigrants had made to America in "many in the fields of science and engineering. Just look among the graduates today."

"As future scientists and engineers, it is likely that you will - on occasions - be under-appreciated, under-recognized, and very likely, under-paid by our society," said Ho in a statement that drew laughter from the audience. The true reward, however, lies in "knowing that your work has helped to build a better, safer, and healthier world," he said.

Regardless of what field of science and technology the graduates entered, "any one of you can cast a giant shadow on our planet," Ho said. He concluded his address with a reminder for the class of '98 to thank their parents.