More than 200 alumni and friends of the American University of Beirut (AUB) traveled to Boston, Massachusetts, on September 30-October 2, 2022, to take part in the AUB North American Alumni Conference hosted by the WAAAUB New England Chapter. It was an extraordinary gathering featuring exceptional panel discussions focused on the global perspective of healthcare in the 21st century and the challenges at AUBMC; inspiring keynote addresses by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos and Dr. Peter Hotez; and lots of opportunities to catch up with old friends. “I will never forget this weekend when many generations of AUB students, graduates, and faculty gathered with their friends and colleagues,” said American University of Beirut President Fadlo R. Khuri, MD.
The conference kicked off with an informal Meet & Greet on Friday evening. Associate Vice President for Alumni Relations-North America and General Secretary of the Worldwide Alumni Association of the American University of Beirut (WAAAUB) Lina Jazi, who orchestrated the three-day event, welcomed everyone on behalf of the American University of Beirut. “It is heartwarming to see alumni and friends, especially young students, gather to learn about these crucial topics in healthcare and the challenges AUBMC is facing. It is also a great opportunity to see old friends and make new ones.”
Panel discussions on Saturday morning
There was no chance to sleep in on Saturday morning: the panel discussions began at 8:45 am when Raja N. Khuri Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Vice President for Medical Affairs Raymond Sawaya, MD, made brief welcoming remarks. Experts from Massachusetts General Hospital, Emory University, Harvard Medical School, the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, University of Pennsylvania, McLean Hospital, MedStar Health and AUBMC discussed disaster preparedness, medical education, and mental health. (You can learn more about our extraordinary panelists here. You can watch recordings of the three panels here.)
Keynote address during Saturday luncheon
Following the morning panels, guests were treated to an inspiring keynote speech, “A Career Based in Science,” by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos, former president, chief executive officer, and chairman of Merck & Co., who addressed his remarks especially to AUB students and faculty. He related the story of his journey from being a waiter in a family Greek restaurant in New Jersey (“in the shadow of Merck headquarters and research laboratory”) to an undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, to Columbia University School of Medicine, to clinical work at Mass General Hospital (“I loved taking care of patients”), to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where he worked in a research lab for the first time with Dr. Earl Stadtman, and then to Merck where he led Merck’s development of the statin drugs, Lovastatin and Zocor. Vagelos noted that the development of these drugs had an enormous impact not just on patients, but also “on the research laboratories at Merck.”
Vagelos also told the story of Ivermectin, “the most potent drug ever seen by man,” and how it was found to be extraordinarily effective in the treatment of river blindness. After some internal debate and discussion, then Merck CEO Vagelos announced in 1987 that the company would donate “as much [of the drug] as needed, for as long as needed” to help eliminate river blindness – a decision that was critical to ensuring that hundreds of millions of people could get access to this sight-saving drug.
Another topic that Dr. Vagelos addressed during his speech was the collaboration between Merck and the Chinese government in the late 1980s to get the hepatitis B vaccine to China where it was urgently needed. Hepatitis was the second leading cause of death in China, after cigarette smoking, at the time. “We agreed on something quite unusual,” remembered Vagelos. Scientists and engineers from China came to the US and spent almost a year in the Merck labs where they were taught how to make the vaccine. They began manufacturing the vaccine in China in 1994. By 2012, China was vaccinating 97 percent of newborn children. “This was a gift from Merck to China… Merck did not make a penny of profit,” said Vagelos.
Vagelos concluded his speech by talking about “the enormous hope for the future” that he felt and his optimism that cancers and diseases that have so far proven resistant would come under control. “I am absolutely sure of it,” he said. Addressing himself to AUB students, he said “your career time and work are going to be much more exciting.” (You can watch a recording of Dr. Vagelos’ speech here.)
Gala dinner on Saturday evening
After spending a few hours exploring Boston, alumni and friends gathered in the Grand Ballroom for the conference gala dinner. Master of ceremonies Deborah Amos, who is an international correspondent covering the Middle East for NPR News, introduced Chairman of the AUB Board of Trustees Philip S. Khoury, PhD, who gave a brief welcome. He noted that the American University of Beirut would be awarding an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, “our university’s highest accolade,” during the dinner to Dr. P. Roy Vagelos. He then introduced President Khuri who spoke about some of the challenges that AUB currently faced due to the economic and financial collapse of Lebanon, the impact of the August 4, 2020, explosion in the Beirut port, and the COVID-19 pandemic – and what it was doing to overcome those challenges. During his presentation, “Leadership During Times of Sustained Crisis,” Khuri also touched on some of the extraordinary accomplishments of AUB faculty and alumni and recent university initiatives such as the establishment of the American University of Beirut – Mediterraneo in Pafos, Cyprus.
During the award of the honorary doctorate to Dr. Vagelos, President Khuri lauded Dr. Vagelos for “his dedication and passion for helping others,” noting that Dr. Vagelos’ “widespread philanthropy and unwavering support for education” were other ways that he led by example. WAAAUB New England Chapter President Salim Chahine (BA ’11) also touched on the topic of philanthropy and the importance of helping others while praising the excellent work of the New England Chapter in recent years. He also announced that the chapter had recently established the New England Chapter Needy Patients Fund at AUBMC, which would benefit from contributions made for the conference.
The keynote address on Saturday evening (“Vaccine Diplomacy in a Time of Antiscience”) was given by Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine. He began his remarks by saying that Dr. Vagelos, and the role he had played in the distribution of Ivermectin, had been an inspiration to him throughout his career. He went on to speak about his work expanding access to vital vaccines to the developing world. He noted that this was providing enhanced opportunities for nations to engage in diplomacy in the pursuit of public health. Hotez also spoke about some of the challenges that he and others have faced in efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic and promote the use of vaccines.
There was still more to come as alumni and friends took to the dance floor inspired by the great music of alumnus Bassel Naaman (BA ’10) (DJ Base). It was a wonderful evening – and truly a weekend to remember! (You can enjoy the pictures here.)