My Lunch With Dr. Vagelos

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One of the best teachers at Penn isn’t on the faculty.

By Rachael Goldfarb

ALTHOUGH I recently served as chair of the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education (SCUE), the branch of student government that is committed to academic reform, I must admit that my most profound experience at Penn was not in a classroom. Nor did I have a grand epiphany as I pored over a textbook, or while meeting with a professor during office hours. Instead, my greatest moments in college took place at a corner table tucked away in the back room of the Faculty Club.
   The back room was established as the SCUE Lounge to designate a specific space for students to have lunch with their professors. I had the opportunity to dine with the head of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights–Dr. Mary Frances Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of History–and heard her describe being passed over for a white woman while hailing a cab to a university commencement at which she was scheduled to give the keynote address. I have listened to our most talented and interesting professors talk about what brought Penn and what motivated them to dedicate their lives to research and teaching. As extraordinary as these lunch hours were, there was one in particular that I will always remember.
    My friend Laura and I had had some previous interaction with Dr. P. Roy Vagelos C’50, chair of the trustees of the University and former chair of Merck & Co., Inc. During these exchanges he seemed to be warm and affable, but there was never an opportunity to talk with him much about his own experiences as a Penn undergraduate and in his subsequent career. Driven by curiosity about such an accomplished life, we wrote him a letter asking him to join us for lunch. He accepted.
    Although Laura and I were quite.nervous, he immediately put us at ease. His personality combines a quiet and gentle nature with a striking forcefulness. When he walks into a room, he fills it by his very presence, not with an entourage. At lunch, he proved to be a masterful storyteller. Describing the skepticism of his colleagues when he took the then-unusual step of leaving the academic world for the pharmaceutical industry, he recalled how one professor had said, “You’re going to have to sell toothbrushes and combs when you go there, right?” His response was, “Probably,” and with that, he embarked on a.remarkable second career developing drugs that would treat and transform entire communities throughout the world.
    As Merck’s chair, Dr. Vagelos has.encountered numerous political and world leaders. He has battled Hillary Clinton over health care, introduced groundbreaking research alongside Ted Kennedy and traveled through donate and administer drugs to impoverished communities with Jimmy Carter. It is the story of the development and distribution of an anti-parasitic drug to cure “river blindness”–a horrific disease contracted from contaminated water that affects millions of people–that I think reveals the most about Dr. Vagelos’character. After helping to develop the drug at Merck, he made the decision to donate it to Africans because those who were affected by the disease could not.afford to pay for a vaccine. Asked whether this decision was a tough one, he answered, simply, “No. It was easy. I was there for the development and the discovery of the drug, and then I just gave it away.”
    This past spring, I managed to.convince Dr. Vagelos to lead a SCUE “preceptorial,” a not-for-credit mini-course that is led by Penn faculty and generated by Penn students [“Don’t Worry, This Won’t Be on the Exam,” Mar/Apr]. His preceptorial, “I Want a New Drug,” addressed drug development and the pharmaceutical industry. Usually, preceptorials feature road trips or discussions in settings beyond campus, and I envisioned taking a tour of Merck’s headquarters or laboratories. But Dr. Vagelos insisted that we have discussions here on campus; he wanted to have a conversation with students. I reluctantly agreed, though I thought students might be disappointed.
    I should have known better. Even with a dryboard as his only teaching tool, Dr. Vagelos was mesmerizing and led one of the most engaging preceptorials I have ever participated in.
    Dr. Vagelos ended the preceptorial by saying, “This is my last teaching experience.” I certainly hope that is not the case and that another opportunity presents.itself, because he is a remarkable teacher.
    Knowing Dr. Vagelos has enriched my life. My dream is to achieve what he has achieved: great success, tempered with kindness and generosity. I am even willing to sell toothbrushes and combs to get there. Thank you, Dr. Vagelos.

Rachael Goldfarb C’99 graduated from the University in May.

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