Cohen Applies Lessons From AIDs Research to Advice for New Grads

Myron S. Cohen, an acclaimed physician and researcher who has spent the past three decades studying the transmission and prevention of HIV/AIDS, spoke to Carolina’s December graduates on Dec. 16.

Cohen joined the UNC faculty in 1980 — the same year that AIDS was identified — and was one of the first to recognize that any attempt to stem the AIDS epidemic would require an international program targeting improved care, treatment and research in resource-poor countries such as Malawi, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and Russia, as well as the United States.

Cohen opened his remarks to the day’s 2,014 new graduates saying he was “determined to say something memorable.”

He had a lot to work with: Cohen’s past year has been rare by any measure and will be remembered for many years for having led the research team whose work signaled the end of AIDs. Cohen drew on that experience to shape his advice to Carolina’s newest alumni.

Cohen’s team of researchers at Carolina developed sensitive assays to measure the concentration of HIV in bodily fluids and was among the first to demonstrate that the presence of other sexually transmitted diseases can increase the likelihood of HIV transmission.

Their research provided the scientific foundation for the Centers for Disease Control’s 2005 strategic plan for HIV prevention and led the National Institutes of Health to tap Carolina to help develop a safe and effective vaccine against HIV/AIDS.

As the architect and principal investigator of the multinational National Institutes of Health HIV Prevention Trials Network, Cohen was instrumental in showing that antiretroviral treatment prevents the sexual transmission of HIV-1. This work was recognized by Science magazine as the “Breakthrough of the Year” in 2011.

In April, he received the top honor of the inaugural Clinical Research Forum Top 10 Clinical Research Achievement Awards. The winning projects represented compelling examples of the scientific innovation that results from the nation’s investment in clinical research that can benefit human health and welfare.

“Scientists had been talking for years about whether treating HIV infection could stop the epidemic,” Cohen told the December graduates. “Our study provided some real proof.

“So I want to tell you the story of how all of this happened and to tell you what I learned that might serve as memorable advice.

First, he said success relies on timing and taking chances. What he called a “random time in China” resulted in his later being invited to work on AIDs in Africa.

Another fundamental for success, he said, is trust. “Why am I so concerned about trust? In 1985” — five years before most of those graduating in December were born — “10 percent of the people admitted to UNC Hospital, just down the road from here, suffered from AIDS infection and none, none, of our patients survived. This was a terrible time. And AIDS was causing a global pandemic. We needed to stop the spreads of AIDS.”

Stopping AIDs required research, and that required the ability to grow the virus in a lab. “We needed to build a state-of-the-art research clinic in Africa, where the disease was spreading like wildfire,” Cohen said. “And here is where I ran into another little problem. I knew I wanted to work on AIDS prevention, but I did not know how to do any of these things.

“To make this happen, we developed collaborations with people all over the UNC campus and all over the world. These turned out to be lifelong collaborations and lifelong friendships.

“Our research team has stayed together for more than two decades working tirelessly on this urgent and stressful and terrible problem. How did we stay together?

“Because we trusted each other.”

He advised tenacity — “the work didn’t happen overnight. … Tenacity is just as important as brains. The easy things are already being done. For the hard things, for the difficult challenges, you will surely need great tenacity. People will tell you cannot achieve your goal or that it is not worth doing. … With your graduation today you have already demonstrated tremendous tenacity. Indeed, we are here right now to recognize and applaud your tenacity.”

Last, Cohen touched on the impact of talent: “Among the 2,014 students graduating today there are gifted musicians and writers and young scientists. Based on your performances here at UNC, I can predict that some of you will go on to start great businesses or to cure diseases; and some of you will devote your lives in service to the poorest and neediest people of the world.

“As you go through your lives, at different moments in time, doors will open and doors will close. You have no idea which is the right door, or what will happen on the other side of the door, or where the door will lead. And at the time you chose a door, it may seem irrational or ill-conceived. I can promise you that your parents will agonize about the doors you choose.

“But there are no wrong doors. There will be an important experience on the other side of each and every door. When the time comes, go through the door. Whatever doors you chose there will always be great dots to connect as you look backward.”

A University faculty member for more than 30 years, Cohen’s titles include associate vice chancellor for global health and director of the Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois and his medical degree from Rush Medical College in Chicago.

Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86 chose Cohen, the J. Herbert Bate Distinguished Professor of medicine, microbiology and immunology and public health, in consultation with the Commencement Speaker Selection Committee, which includes students and faculty. His selection continues Carolina’s tradition of faculty speakers at December Commencement.

“Through his internationally recognized scholarship, Mike Cohen epitomizes the vast power of a research university and its people to help tackle the world’s greatest problems,” Thorp said. “His work has helped fundamentally change prevention strategies and the search for a cure as part of the global fight against AIDS.”

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