Engineering professor speaks at doctoral commencement about surviving cancer and passing discoveries to new generations

August 10, 2018
Dr. Greg Sawyer
photographer: Brianne Lehan
commencement

Greg Sawyer is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and a member of the Academy of Distinguished Teaching Scholars at UF. A Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, Sawyer specializes in the field of tribology. His work includes new materials for ultra-low friction and wear for a number of applications ranging from space to biomedicine. His speech is below.

Doctors!

It really is an honor and a privilege to be here with all of you today at your commencement; it is such a special day for you.  You’re surrounded by classmates, advisors, friends, and family.  It takes a prodigious amount of effort to amass this level of education. This is a day you will always remember.

You are all clearly, very talented, passionate, and motivated, but you didn’t get here alone. Make sure that you take some time to thank the people that are here with you. Thank-yous are important. They let people know that you notice their efforts.  And honestly, your degree is as much about effort as anything.

As an undergraduate student at Rensselaer, I took classes in engineering, science, history, art, and literature.  I fell in love with all of it!  I think that’s why I am so fond of the Renaissance.  There are a lot of heroes from that time, and Leonardo da Vinci is certainly one of them, particularly for an engineer.  I have seen a dozen of the known surviving da Vinci paintings, about half of them.  I have stood for hours really looking at these paintings.  Oddly, I don’t find them inherently beautiful.  They are full of details that he clearly draws from his own observations of the world.  The backgrounds feature landscapes of unbelievable tortuosity and detail, all created from his imagination – details that drift into a foggy obscurity at the margins.  The babies and children are frankly a wreck, but the eyes...  Leonardo studied eyes.  I walk away from these encounters with his art, thinking about Leonardo, the scientist and engineer, staring into the eyes of his models, trying desperately to capture the finest details, to capture the details that reveal that there is thought behind these eyes. 

What is it that draws so many of us to his paintings, if not the beauty?  I think that it is the effort – his paintings are full of effort.  There is no easy brush stroke. 

Effort is Beautiful. 

About 4 years ago, I tried to recreate one of the experiments from da Vinci’s notebook.  Just 1 of his experiments - a block of wood being dragged across a board. It took me a year to recreate this seemingly simple measurement.  The key bit turned out to be handling the wood with dirty dusty hands.  It made sense considering that experiments were done in a busy workshop full of scientist, engineers, and artists.  Of course these experiments were performed with his pupils, his advisees all pitching in as they tried to find a universal model to friction.  I like this notion of the Renaissance: the advisor and the advisee.

In the Prado in Madrid there is a second Mona Lisa, far less visited than Leonardo’s, but arguably more true to the model – she had eyebrows.  It was likely painted by one of his students, Francesco Melzi, working alongside Leonardo.  What a great thing! Leonardo didn’t simply give Francesco a finished painting to copy; it is clear that they created the painting together.  As mistakes were made and corrected and details changed, they were changed together.

I think about that vibrant lab often.  How much of Leonardo da Vinci’s work was really for his advisees?  Who were all the notebooks for?  Leonardo reportedly maintained a group of 6 students.  It was Francesco who kept Leonardo’s notebooks: the advisee carrying the lessons forward, sharing the notebooks and teachings of Leonardo with his own students.  We might never know the breadth of Leonardo’s work, his methods and experiments, his work in mechanics and medicine, and all of the imaginative engineering designs if not for Francesco.

Many of you are seated next to your thesis advisor who will hood you later this afternoon.  The doctorate degree has certainly evolved over the past thousand years, but the concept of an advisor has been there from the beginning. The origin of the word doctor is Latin: to teach.

We are counting on all of you to carry knowledge forward – to be your advisors’ Francescos.

About 5 years ago, I was diagnosed with late stage metastatic cancer.  I remember the morning that I realized something really wasn’t quite right.  I biked in to my general physician, scheduled an ultrasound, and 24 hours later – I knew.

That week I did all the scans and my first of 5 surgeries.  While I was asleep in recovery, the doctor told my wife the diagnosis – it was an aggressive cancer.  She promptly called my parents.  I am so glad that I didn’t have to make that call.  The cancer was in my spine, the T12 vertebrae, and a bunch of lymph nodes under my left arm.  I had to face the new reality that I was a cancer patient, and the cancer was spreading.

That evening, I told my sons William and Charles about the diagnosis. They were 12 and 7 at the time.  It was the worst thing I have ever had to tell anyone; I felt sick, really sick.  The next day, I got in early to my laboratory, turned on the lights and cried.  I was looking at my busy laboratory.  A beautiful space full of the best instrumentation in the world, most of it built by my students -- a young team of brilliant engineers and scientists.  All of it was designed to study engineering surfaces.  I saw no instruments to help with cancer.

All alone in the lab, leaning against a gigantic stainless-steel instrument, I am not exactly sure why I cried.  I remember thinking about all of my students, and how on earth was I going to tell them that I probably wouldn’t be here for their graduations.  I remember thinking: “How am I going to do this?  What do I want to do?”  Later that morning I told them all the diagnosis.  It was the second hardest conversation of my life. 

Advisors, mentees, and colleagues: Your academic family really is a family.  Cherish it.

After I told my families the diagnosis, I delegated the task to others to spread the word.  I stopped talking about it and travelled to the best cancer center in the country, where I met my new oncologist, who on my very first meeting said “well, the 5-year survival is in the toilet -- what do you want to do?”  I couldn’t believe this was the beginning of my cancer story. Less than 10% of people with my diagnosis make it 5 years.

“What do I want to do?”

Work!  I wanted to work on cancer.  I drove back to a friend’s house that evening and got to work.  So much to do, I had a project to finish, a report to write, and a lifetime of lessons to teach two young boys.  A diagnosis like this changes your perspective, quickly.  What I realized was that we are not really living for ourselves; we are really living for others.  We are living for what we leave behind, the notebooks, the families.  I remember my first prayer as a cancer patient: “God, let me stay here as long as the boys need me.”  Everything takes on a new urgency: “Sons there are only 4 knots that you need to master, lesson 1 – the bowline.”  I can’t imagine what it has been like for them living with this urgency.

That night, when everyone was asleep I downloaded my first scientific paper on cancer. I couldn’t read it.  The terminology was like Dr. Seuss!  “cMYC SMAD JNK WNT Frizzled.” I never felt dumber in my life, but I kept digging through these papers, making notes, trying to understand where the problems were.  Where does cancer need an engineer?  I personally chose a treatment path that kept as many options open as possible, sparing no effort: 5 surgeries and 2 rounds of intense radiation.  I slowly realized that immunotherapy was my only real chance.

Later that year, I was patient 1 on a combination check point inhibitor trial. I have no doubt that I am here today with you because of that trial.

In reading cancer papers, it became clear to me that my own training and experiences brought a different perspective to the cancer problem.  Engineers work with extremely complex systems, but we like to break them down, test individual components, and subassemblies, and manage the complexity systematically, piecewise.  We look for connections at the interfaces between these components.  I suspected that biology must do something similar.  I just couldn’t see any obvious way to help with cancer, but I kept looking and trying to find the gaps.  Your degree, the doctorate, is about researching problems and getting things down to the fundamentals.  Whatever challenges you are faced with, don’t forget your training and your experiences. 

Never, ever, ever quit.  Effort is beautiful.  There are no easy brushstrokes.

After 2 years of searching, it was a discovery by a friend, colleague, and UF engineering professor Tommy Angelini, that opened the door.  I learned that what researchers and clinicians needed most to make progress against rare and aggressive cancers was access to precise tumors, and 3D assays that included immune cells, controlled microenvironments, and high-resolution imaging and control of drug delivery.  We needed a new infrastructure, a new type of lab, a Cancer Engineering Lab.  Tumor bioprinting: we can now manufacture tumors by the thousands! All human biology, all in the lab, a tool for everyone to build and tear apart cancer, figure out how it works, find its weaknesses, and stop it.

Today, 5 years after my diagnosis, I am still here; I am still working.  I once again have a laboratory full of wonderful instrumentation hand built by a young team of brilliant engineers and scientists, but now it is all dedicated to cancer research.  I have funding from the Pharmaceutical Industry and the National Institutes of Health to fabricate tumors and study the mechanism of action of the very drugs that saved my life.  I am a part of a wonderful group of dedicated medical researchers, engineers, scientists, and doctors all working together, all working on cancer.

Cancer survivors make promises – and we keep them.  I like that. I wish I did more of that before cancer.  I live 6 months at a time and I can tell you it is truly exhausting.  I have come to peace with this existence – I plan optimistically, but I live urgently.  Working on a cure is a long-horizon problem, maybe like Leonardo’s landscapes – tortuous, foggy, and uncertain.  I try to bring persistent and continuous effort, urgency, and optimism to the challenge, and I look for colleagues that can do the same – unrelenting focus and effort.  Breakthroughs almost always have elements of chance, opportunity, and ability, but there is also, almost always, a team, a family, and a mountain of hard work.

Be kind and patient with your families; it’s your job to be the bridge. These relationships are complex, and it will take a lot of effort to maintain them over a lifetime.  Try to be generous with your time, but remember, things happen quickly, and it’s worth taking time to tell people what they mean to you when you have a chance.  We all fight for time and a chance.

Please whatever you do, never, ever, ever quit.  Regardless of the challenge, you will absolutely find your way through it.  You’re Doctors!

Enjoy your day.

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