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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Cohen urges graduates to take chances, be tenacious

Myron S. Cohen’s groundbreaking work studying the transmission and prevention of HIV/AIDS has taken him around the world.

But he began his Dec. 16 Commencement speech in a place very familiar to the 2,400 graduates (1,299 bachelor’s, 766 master’s, 277 doctoral and 68 professional degrees) who had just earned their degrees.

Cohen began with a reference to Sesame Street, drawing three lessons from his own life – all brought by the letter ‘T.'

Taking chances

The first lesson was about timing and taking chances.

Cohen said that is what he and his wife, Gail, did in 1979 when Yale University offered them a chance to go to Wuhan, China, to collaborate. “I knew nothing about China; I spoke no Chinese. But for no good reason I spent a year in China,” he said.

That year, they learned a lot about Mao and communism and Chinese food, and wrote a book that he said still had 16 used copies on Amazon selling for 99 cents each.

The value of the experience did not reveal itself until a decade later, when the couple had become professors at Carolina and AIDS was a global epidemic. Cohen said he was invited to work on this program in Africa specifically because he had “international experience.”

The late Steve Jobs referred to finding the long-term benefit of random decisions as “connecting the dots.”

“As you go through your lives, at different moments in time doors will open and doors will close,” Cohen said. “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 choose a door, it may seem irrational or ill conceived.”

But there are no wrong doors, he said. “When the time comes, go through the door. Whatever doors you choose there will always be dots to connect.”

 Trust

The second lesson was about trust.

For his research, Cohen needed to grow the HIV virus in a laboratory.

He needed to be able to measure the effects of HIV drugs directed against the virus, and he needed to build a state-of-the-art clinic in Africa where the disease was spreading like wildfire.

And he did not know how to do any of those things.

To make them happen, he needed to develop collaborations with people across the campus and around the world, he said.

“The research team has stayed together for more than two decades working tirelessly on this urgent and stressful and terrible problem,” he said.  And the team stayed together by trusting one another, he added.

Tenacity

Cohen also talked about the value of tenacity.

“Our research team believed that if you treated someone with HIV infection and they took their pills every day, they would no longer be contagious,” Cohen said.

They set out to prove this in 1999.  The study cost $78 million and required the participation of 4,000 brave volunteers from nine countries in Asia, Africa and North America, including the United States.

And for the 12 years, the team had no idea whether the study would show any meaningful results.

Then, In April 2011, the study showed that by treating HIV-infected people they had stopped HIV transmission close to 100 percent of the time – and had inched ever closer to a cure.

The breakthrough was front-page news the next day. The Economist magazine published a cover story declaring “The End of AIDS” epidemic and Science Magazine named the team’s work the “Breakthrough of the Year” – a distinction that was “like winning American Idol for scientists,” Cohen said.

That success proved the value of tenacity, he said.

“Take chances. Look for doors that open and rush through them, unafraid. Build trusting relationships in every aspect of your life,” Cohen said. “And when things look most difficult, please, please don’t give up. Be tenacious.”

He told the graduates he was incredibly lucky to find a career in which he could use his talents and urged them to explore their many talents, both known and unknown. 

“Take chances, be tenacious and your talents will triumph,” he said.

Read the full text of Cohen’s speech here.