At the recent VUB Honorary Doctorate Awards Ceremony at the University of Brussels, the focus was on “Figures That Matter.” The word “figures” had a double meaning: numbers and facts, as well as individuals and personalities. Susie and I received the award for scientific research and education in the field of myeloma. The fundamental meaning of the university’s theme for the awards was that knowledge is indeed powerful. It must be sought and communicated. And using knowledge—at all costs—really matters.

We were privileged to share the stage with our fellow honorees, each of whom embodies this core belief:

  • Hans Rosling received a posthumous award for the book “Factfulness,” which he co-wrote with his son, Ola Rosling, and daughter-in-law, Anna Rosling Rünnlund. The book argues that facts are not always as they seem at first glance. For example, is there more or less poverty or war in 2019? On a global scale, there is actually less than in past years. “Factfulness,” which has been endorsed by both former President Barack Obama and Bill and Melinda Gates, is an amazing book that offers 10 reasons our perceptions are wrong about the world. Among them: trends do not always follow a straight line; slow progress, if sustained, can nonetheless have a big impact; and our need to blame a single person for everything is misplaced. As the VUB awards theme underscored, science and facts really do matter.
  • Robbert Dijkgraaf is a theoretical physicist whose office is next to Einstein’s old office at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where he serves as Director. He has previously won the Spinoza prize for his work on string theory and quantum gravity. He was awarded the VUB honorary doctorate because he is a true ambassador for science. Prof. Dijkgraaf is concerned about the way society currently views science and advocates for an optimistic view of the future (as do the Roslings). He promotes his belief in the resilience of mankind and our ability to tackle the problems of the future with the help of science. (Watch the inspiring speech he delivered at the awards ceremony here.)

Common message that science and facts matter

The 2019 VUB awards celebrated values in sync with longstanding IMF philosophies: seek the truth to help further research, and advocate resilience and education to strengthen patients and enable them to become “warriors” who obtain their best treatments and outcomes. Other VUB awardees were in the fields of mathematics (Karine Chemla), engineering (Freddy Van Oystaeyen), science education (Padmanabhan Seshaiyer), and graphic arts and political cartoons (Gerard Alsteens, aka “GAL”). GAL is renowned for his commitment to freedom of speech. He strives to be as funny and critical as necessary, without prejudice. In each case, the individual honored was committed to the search for truth, the desire to communicate results, and the will to make recommendations for the benefit of society.

Honor of the Doctorate Award

To receive the award in such prestigious company was a great honor. Each awardee was uplifted and strengthened by the energy and achievements of the other awardees. As we walked into the award ceremony on the VUB campus, we passed a photo of Nelson Mandela, the first to receive the award. We heard about other awardees, including explorer Jacques Cousteau, linguist Noam Chomsky, conductor Daniel Barenboim, and several Nobel laureates in the physical and medical sciences.

The ceremony itself was unique in that Prof. Dr. Caroline Pauwels, VUB Rector, presented the awards after a video had described the accomplishments of each award winner. The award to Susie and me was the first bestowed on a couple rather than an individual. After receiving the diploma and plaque, we sat on a white sofa on the stage and were interviewed about our work before an audience that included family and IMF friends able to be present. It was a special occasion, and we were touched by the moving acknowledgement of the work of the IMF.

Science, facts, and the future

After the ceremony, the awardees celebrated the future, in which we all plan to continue to make a difference for society and perhaps collaborate to achieve goals which are clearly in sync with each other. For medical research and for myeloma patients we are faced with many vital and challenging issues.

Dangers of resistant infections

A New York Times article this week reports that a new type of infection is occurring in patients with a weakened immune system. The infection is called Candida Auris, a type of fungus resistant to commonly used anti-fungal antibiotic treatments. Increased awareness among physicians is required to diagnose this new infection from cultures and to treat it appropriately.

The question is, “why is this infection occurring?” The answer is that new resistant microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi) are emerging because of over-use of anti-microbial therapies in agriculture and farming to produce food, including vegetables, fruits, and other crops, as well as in raising livestock, including pigs, cattle, and chickens. The resistant infections enter the food chain and put everyone at risk, but especially those with a weakened immune system. In a separate article, the New York Times highlights the increasing danger of the emergence of resistant infections from misuse of antibiotics in poor countries, such as Kenya, in central Africa. These new infections challenge the resources of top medical systems around the world and can create a true global menace with infections that no longer respond to available antibiotics.

The need for truth

These two alarming reports point to the need for truth in the public health sphere. Chemicals and anti-microbials used in agriculture and elsewhere in the environment are known to be dangerous. However, regulations are lax, especially in the U.S., where oversight by the FDA and EPA has, unfortunately, been weakened. Working toward measures that benefit society is essential to achieving better outcomes for everyone. This was, of course, the theme of the Honorary Doctorates Ceremony in Brussels—as scientists and educators, we strive for increased awareness, clear and compelling communication, and collaborative actions to improve the well-being of all.

Susie and I were deeply honored and have renewed our commitment to science, facts, knowledge, resilience, and the best outcomes for myeloma patients around the world.

Image of Dr. Brian G.M. DurieDr. Brian G.M. Durie serves as Chairman of the International Myeloma Foundation and serves on its Scientific Advisory Board. Additionally, he is Chairman of the IMF's International Myeloma Working Group, a consortium of nearly 200 myeloma experts from around the world. Dr. Durie also leads the IMF’s Black Swan Research Initiative®.

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