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Dr. Pamela Bjorkman

Address to convocation

Oct. 22,10 a.m.

I am truly honoured to be here today and I would like to thank the Senate of Memorial University for this distinction. I have to say that it had never occurred to me that I might one day receive an honorary degree from Memorial University. I am, as you have heard, an American – although since I am in Canada, which of course is part of the North American continent, I will amend that to say that I am from the United States of America. So you may wonder about why I am receiving this degree, who exactly I am, and what my connection to Memorial and to Newfoundland is.

Here’s the connection: I am, as my grandfather always strove to remind me, half Newfoundlander. This comes from my mother’s side of the family. My mother, Jane Björkman, was born as Jane Forsey in Grand Bank, where she lived until she was 16 years old. At that point, she left Grand Bank to go to school here in St. John’s – at Memorial University. I’m happy to say that my mother is here today in the audience, with her sister, Helen Milley (also a graduate of Memorial University), and Helen’s daughters, my cousins Hazel Milley and Ruth Kelly.

The reason that I grew up in the United States is because my mother moved to my father’s hometown in the state of Oregon, on the west coast of the US, when she married my father. So I grew up in Portland, Oregon, as an American, but with many stories about Newfoundland and a strong sense that I was part of that community of people thousands of miles away.

We visited Newfoundland twice when I was child; once when I was two, which I don’t remember although I’m told I returned from the trip with a Newfoundland accent, and once for most of the summer when I was 10 years old. I remember a lot about that trip, starting with our train ride from Vancouver BC to Halifax, the airplane to St. John’s, and the 7 hour drive from St. John’s to Grand Bank (there wasn’t much of a road to Grand Bank in those days, so it took longer to get there). Once we arrived in Grand Bank, I discovered a small town where I seemed to be related to everyone, or at least everyone knew who I was based on knowing my grandmother or my grandfather. And what was really wonderful for me, as a child, was that everyone seemed to want to give me presents. I remember many afternoon teas, where my grandmother’s friends would shower us with gifts.

I also remember making friends with other kids, including Judy Crowley, now Judy Foote, who grew up in Grand Bank and has represented them in the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly. Judy now serves as a member of parliament for the riding of Random – Burin – St George’s. By the way, I found out something very interesting about the Newfoundland & Labrador House of Assembly: apparently the governing party is normally supposed to sit on the right side of the speaker of the House of Assembly, but in the Newfoundland & Labrador House of Assembly, there is a tradition that the governing party sits on the left side. This tradition dates back to the 1850s when the heaters in the Colonial Building were located only on the left side. So the governing party chose to sit in the heat, and leave the opposition sitting in the cold.

Back to my childhood memories of Newfoundland: I’ve told you that being there when I was 10 made a strong impression on me. When I returned to my home in Oregon, I decided to do a report about Newfoundland’s confederation – that is, when Newfoundland became Canada’s 10th province in 1949, which was enacted after a vote to decide if Newfoundland would join Canada or remain an independent country. I wrote the report, complete with graphics about the election using resources I got from a pro-Confederation pamphlet, and proudly mailed it to my grandparents. What I didn’t understand was that my grandfather, Curtis Forsey, was apparently dead-set against confederation, and considered himself to be an English citizen until the day he died. He actually fought for England as part of the Newfoundland regiment in World War I – indeed, Bert Riggs, who is an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University, edited a book about my grandfather: it’s called Grand Bank Soldier: The War Letters of Lance Corporal Curtis Forsey. The book contains 51 letters that my grandfather wrote to his parents back in Grand Bank during the 19 months he was on active duty in World War I. The letters include descriptions of some of the famous battles in WWI, where he saw action, including the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium.

Back to the present and why I’m here and who I am: I am a research scientist, trained in a combination of chemistry and biology. We study proteins and cells by looking at their three-dimensional structures. My way of studying biology is to find out what something looks like, because its structure often gives clues to its function. The first structure that I worked on was probably the most informative one – that is, the structure of a representative protein from a class of proteins called human leukocyte antigens, or HLA. HLA proteins have a connection to Memorial University and to Newfoundland, as I’ll explain after I’ve introduced them.

Everyone has a set of HLA proteins on the surfaces of their cells, and this set of HLA proteins differs from one person to another. So unless you’re related, you and the person sitting next to you will have different HLA proteins, which means that you would reject a skin graft or organ transplant from your neighbour. Lots of laboratories around the work catalogue HLA types because this information is relevant to the ability to do organ transplants, and also to the susceptibility to certain diseases, and for sociologists, for understanding the origins of different human population groups. In fact, major efforts in HLA typing have been done here, at Memorial University. It turns out that some of the small fishing communities were geographically isolated until the mid-20th century, and this offered the opportunity to study towns in which ~80 per cent of the people were descended from a single ancestral couple. So scientists from Memorial University, led by Dr. William Marshall, a professor of immunology, were able to simplify what would normally be very complicated human genetics to see what role genetics plays in human disease, and from a sociological point of view, to describe the mating structure and genetic composition of an isolated population. So it turns out that my first passion in science, that is HLA proteins, has a strong connection to Newfoundland.

My more recent interest in science is to figure out how HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, works, with the ultimate goal of eradicating it – in other words, wiping it off the face of the earth so that it can no longer kill people. I’m sure you all know about HIV, maybe you even know someone who is HIV positive. But although HIV and AIDS are devastating for any infected individual and for his or her loved ones, AIDS is not currently a critical health problem in most parts of North America or Western Europe, largely due to the availability of effective anti-retroviral drugs. But these drugs are not readily available in many other parts of the world, especially sub-Saharan Africa, where AIDS has rendered many and sometimes even most children orphans. The epidemic is so bad that there are countries in Africa where the life expectancy for a child born today is only 30 years, a direct effect of AIDS, and where a 25-year-old woman has about a 50 per cent chance of being HIV-positive, and of course children born to HIV-positive women are likely to inherit the virus themselves. So there is a desperate need to develop a safe and effective vaccine against HIV, so that it can be eliminated the way polio and smallpox have been eliminated from most parts of the world. We hope to contribute to this effort by designing proteins that will cripple HIV before it can infect someone. This is a difficult, but fascinating task because HIV is highly evolved to be able to successfully evade most or all of your body’s natural defenses. So we hope to be able to make new proteins that the virus can’t escape from.

I used the word “passion” to describe my scientific interests, and this reminds that, since this is a graduation ceremony, I’m supposed to say some words of wisdom. If you’re anything like I was at my college graduation, you won’t remember much of what anyone says, especially any advice you’re given, in one or the other long speech. So I’ll try to keep this simple. I think most of you are probably at a turning point in your lives now. You’ve finished college – please accept my congratulations for all of your hard work – and you’re ready to move on to the next step. What should that be? Of course that depends on your interests and expertise, and the best next step will be different for each of you who are here today. But if you want to make it the right next step for you, I would advise you to consider one thing: what is your passion? If you want to choose the right career for you, you must consider what you really love to do. The best job for you is one that you would do whether or not you were getting paid. This is the way I feel about science – I consider the opportunity to do biomedical research a great privilege. What brings me to work every day is not the fact that I’m paid, but that I love what I do. Every day brings a new question to address, something new to learn about the way life works. My advice to you is to take advantage of your education to find that passion. Whatever career you choose, you’ll do the best job if it’s something you feel compelled to do, something that sparks your interests completely. For me the combination of an intellectually stimulating set of questions – how can we design proteins that will effectively prevent HIV infections? – with a problem of social importance – working towards stopping the world-wide devastation caused by AIDS – is what keeps me happy and excited about my work and my life. You’re the next generation we’re counting on to improve our world, so what I hope for each of you is that you will find your own passion in your life’s work.

It has been a great privilege for me to be present with you at your convocation and I am truly honoured to have received my degree with all of you today.