Sanford Burnham Prebys celebrates first graduate school Commencement ceremony

| Written by Greg Calhoun
Left to right are Rachael McVicar, Ph.D.; James Kent, Ph.D.; Monica Gonzalez Ramirez, Ph.D.; and Stephen Sakuma, Ph.D.
Pictured from left to right are Rachael McVicar, Ph.D. ’23; James Kent, Ph.D. ’22; Monica Gonzalez Ramirez, Ph.D. ’18; and Stephen Sakuma, Ph.D. ’24.

The Sanford Burnham Prebys Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences held its first-ever Commencement ceremony to celebrate nearly 20 years of educating future scientists

On Friday, May 31, 2024, the Sanford Burnham Prebys Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences hosted four graduates, their family members and friends as well as current students, faculty members and staff at the Institute’s campus in La Jolla for the school’s first-ever Commencement ceremony.

In addition to honoring the four graduates in attendance, the event also recognized the 62 other alumni who graduated from the Institute’s graduate school in the nearly 20 years since its founding in 2006.

“The graduate school is a direct extension of our commitment to training the next generation of scientists,” said David Brenner, M.D., president, CEO and Donald Bren Chief Executive Chair at Sanford Burnham Prebys, during his welcoming remarks. “We focus on cultivating a collaborative culture where students are full participants. Thank you for your dedication to learning and creating new knowledge, and for your contributions to our mission of translating science to improve health.”

Brenner added, “We’re incredibly proud of you!”

Alessandra Sacco, Ph.D. giving address at Graduate School graduation ceremony
Alessandra Sacco, Ph.D., director of, and professor in, the
Development, Aging and Regeneration Program at Sanford
Burnham Prebys, and dean of the Institute’s Graduate School of
Biomedical Sciences, delivered the Commencement address.

Alessandra Sacco, Ph.D., director of, and professor in, the Development, Aging and Regeneration Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys, and dean of the Institute’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, delivered the Commencement address.

“Hold onto perseverance and trust in yourself as you move forward,” said Sacco. “Never forget the sacrifices you have made, the hours in the lab and the failed experiments that have shaped you into better researchers.”

Sacco also remarked, “You are the next generation of scientists. You can make a difference by pushing on scientific boundaries while also having a positive influence on your communities.”

After concluding her remarks by wishing the graduates great success throughout their professional journeys, Sacco introduced Stephen Sakuma, Ph.D. ’24, to speak on behalf of the Institute’s 66 alumni.

Stephen Sakura, Ph.D. gives address at Graduate School graduation ceremony
Stephen Sakuma, Ph.D. ’24, spoke on behalf of the Institute’s
66 alumni.

“The faculty and community at Sanford Burnham Prebys have been tremendous and afforded me the most meaningful opportunities to learn and grow,” said Sakuma. “The journey has been long and, at times, arduous, but it also has been exceedingly rewarding.”

Diane Klotz, Ph.D., chief learning officer at Sanford Burnham Prebys, then discussed the meaning of the hoods and symbols that are used in Commencement ceremonies. She recognized the Institute’s alumni, both present and across the globe, and explained that all graduates are conferred degrees following the completion of all educational requirements and successful defense of their theses.

The Commencement ceremony, then, represents an opportunity to welcome back and celebrate with our alumni and their friends and family, and to pay tribute to alumni unable to attend who entrusted Sanford Burnham Prebys with their graduate education and preparation to enter the field of biomedical research.

Klotz invited the graduates forward and instructed faculty members to adorn them with the doctoral academic hoods signifying completion of a Ph.D. program.

The graduates who attended the Commencement ceremony were:

  • Monica Gonzalez Ramirez, Ph.D. ’18, who trained in the Salvesen lab and was hooded by Guy Salvesen, Ph.D., emeritus professor

  • James Kent, Ph.D. ’22, who trained in the Marassi lab and was hooded by Dr. Guy Salvesen

  • Rachael McVicar, Ph.D. ’23, who trained in the Snyder/Leibel lab and was hooded by Evan Snyder, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine and professor in the Human Genetics Program

  • Stephen Sakuma, Ph.D. ’24, who trained in the D’Angelo lab and was hooded by Maximiliano D'Angelo, Ph.D., associate professor in the Cancer Metabolism and Microenvironment Program

As the inaugural dean of the Institute’s graduate school, Salvesen provided the ceremony’s closing remarks. He wished the alumni well and supported Sacco’s assertion that their perseverance would be rewarded, which he reinforced with a quote from author and Arches National Park enthusiast Edward Abbey.

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.”

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