Leading medical researcher delivers her ‘three pearls’ to grads at Wednesday’s convocation

What does it take to be successful in one’s career and personal life?

That question was answered by Dr. Frances Shepherd during Fall Convocation ceremonies on Wednesday, Oct. 10 at York University.

Dr. Frances Shepherd addresses graduates at York University’s Fall Convocation

Shepherd was at York University to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree, which was awarded to her during convocation ceremonies for graduates of the Faculty of Health and Osgoode Hall Law School.

Shepherd was awarded the honorary degree from York University in recognition of her leading role in treating lung cancer. As a medical oncologist and researcher, she has made major contributions to the design, development and conduct of clinical trials for treating lung cancer. Her landmark studies are noted for changing treatment and outcomes for patients with both small cell and non-small cell lung cancer at a global level.

“What am I going to say to the graduates?” said Shepherd, when she described preparing for her convocation address. “I thought back to when I graduated and the years before that when a graduating class would be largely made up of men, they would all have positions to go to, they would work in a steady job and at 65 they would retire with a nice pension and a gold watch.

“How many of you are facing that?” she said to the graduates, noting that times had changed and many of those graduating would not find a full-time job for a number of years.

She told them that she decided that in her convocation address she would offer three pearls of wisdom to the graduates. She said these three pearls of wisdom had guided her throughout her professional and personal life.

For her first pearl, Shepherd advised grads not to be concerned if their first job was not their dream job. “If you don’t get the job of your dreams when you start your career, don’t be disappointed,” she said, highlighting that she did not get the “job of her dreams” after she graduated from university.

“When you go to whatever job that you get, do the best that you can and ‘make colleagues and contacts’. Don’t go in with a negative attitude. It will serve you best to do the very best that you can,” she said. “You will learn something from that job and be a better person when you move to your next job, be it another contract or a permanent job with benefits.

Shepherd, who is currently a senior staff physician at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, holds the Scott Taylor Chair in Lung Cancer Research, a chair she has held since 2001. She is also a full professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto. In this role, she has mentored more than 40 postdoctoral research Fellows from around the world, many of whom now hold senior academic positions of their own. She has authored or co-authored more than 500 peer-reviewed publications and 35 book chapters. Her next pearl to graduates was one she says she delivers frequently to her postdoctoral research Fellows.

“My next pearl is to be a finisher. I don’t know how many of you are pursuing graduate degrees, but those of us in academia, we send papers to meetings, we write abstracts and make posters, we give talks, and that is usually where it is left,” said Shepherd. “I tell most of my Fellows that sending an abstract or doing a poster is easy. The hard thing is to be the finisher and drive the paper through to its end. Everyone of you will have jobs to do, and you must be a finisher. Don’t leave things undone.”

From left: York Univesity Chancellor Gregory Sorbara, Dr. Frances Shepherd, and York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton

Her final pearl to the graduating class was to embrace the power of collaboration. “No one does anything in isolation. Certainly, I am not where I am today without collaboration,” she said, noting that those present had heard about her pioneering work in the molecular aspects of lung cancer during the convocation introduction. “I am not a laboratory scientist but I work with scientists and bring the clinic and the science together,” she said. “The best thing you can do in life is to collaborate in your homelife with your family, in your work life with your colleagues locally, nationally and globally.”

In closing, she said that because she was on the convocation stage, she could not resist making what she felt was a key request to graduates and their families. “The average university student, about 15 per cent of you, smoke and your parents may also smoke,” she said. “The best thing you can do is stop smoking. Smokers on average lose 10 years of life. So if I can get one person today to stop smoking, that will be my success today.”