One of the first things that Ralph Snyderman told MD/PhD students who had come to the inaugural lecture in the “Lasker Lessons in Leadership” series was that each member of the audience had the potential to become a leader and to succeed in science, but this did not mean that success was assured. A highly successful scientist who has won multiple prestigious awards in the field of medicine, Ralph Snyderman explained that becoming a leader in science “is a long and arduous journey.”

The presentation, entitled “From Brooklyn to Lab Bench to Board Room: Lessons Learned,” took place on May 19, 2015, on the NIH main campus in Bethesda and was the first in a series of talks aiming to inspire MD/PhD students for future leadership. The series is developed in collaboration with the International Biomedical Research Alliance and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program.

Ralph Snyderman talked about the importance of choosing a career path, pointing out that even within the biomedical research field there are many possibilities to consider. He urged students to think about what they wanted to do, how they would differentiate themselves from others, and perhaps most importantly, why they were pursuing biomedical research. He called these questions the what, the how, and the why of one’s career, adding that science “is a difficult business to be in” and said that thinking about these questions can help young scientists persevere through the challenging times of their careers.

One of the most valuable lessons that Snyderman learned early on was the importance of one’s surroundings — the lab one joins and one’s colleagues, mentors, and collaborators. “Go to the place that will challenge you the most, where you will be around the best people, and where you will demand the most of yourself,” Snyderman advised, as these are the factors that set both one’s lower boundary and one’s aspirational boundary.

Snyderman spoke of life-changing decisions such as when he left NIH for a faculty position at Duke University, and later when he left Duke to become the senior vice president for medical research at Genentech, only to find himself back at Duke a few years later, but this time as the Chancellor of Health Affairs. These experiences that led him to the absolute certainty that “what you start out doing is not what you end up doing,” and that this is one of the joys of life.

Ralph Snyderman ended his inspirational talk by saying that maybe the answer of why he made the specific choices he did belonged to the realm of philosophy or to the ponderings of a Buddhist monk. Perhaps he was driven by a need to leave something in a much better condition than the way he found it. But one thing he felt he could say for sure was that the greatest joy in his career was learning, which was a lifetime event. He emphasized that one should always associate with people from whom one can learn.

In the afternoon, Snyderman led a discussion on the topic of “Personalized Medicine: From Theory to Practice.” He is well recognized for his leadership on conceptualizing and developing personalized healthcare. He discussed with students the importance of personalized medicine to human health, the ways in which it could help reduce the long-term burden and cost of health care, and the issues related to getting insurance companies and employers to adopt these solutions.