Dr. Noubar Afeyan Speaks to Belmont Hill

On February 10, Winsor and Belmont Hill hosted a webinar with Dr. Noubar Afeyan. Moderated by Dr. Goldberg, the Science Department Head at Belmont Hill, the webinar answered student questions while providing insight into the world of medicine and entrepreneurship. 

Dr. Afeyan is the founder and CEO of Flagship Pioneering, an investment firm that hopes to make advances in health and take strides toward more sustainable technological development. He is also the co-founder and chairman of Moderna, which has helped combat the pandemic with its revolutionary mRNA vaccines. Dr. Afeyan has more than 100 patents across his 70-plus companies. Mr. Schneider, the Head of School at Belmont Hill, noted that, “Dr. Afeyan is a truly remarkable scientist and entrepreneur, and he is a parent of former students at both Winsor and Belmont Hill. Thus, his talk was an ideal opportunity for partnership with Winsor, and we know both communities benefited from his insight and expertise in the context of the pandemic.”

Dr. Goldberg began the webinar by asking three fundamental questions: “Do you feel having to endure difficult times is a necessary ingredient for success? Would you tell us about some of the setbacks you’ve had and what you have learned from these experiences? Would you comment on the importance of wonder, a growth mindset, and, specifically, taking academic risks for a successful career?” In response, Dr. Afeyan described the challenges he faced, such as fleeing the Lebanese civil war at thirteen and overseeing projects and companies that did not go as planned. 

“Rather than speak to a preselected topic, Dr. Afeyan wanted to feature preselected student questions from both schools,” reported Ms. McMahon from Winsor’s Advancement Team. Dr. Goldberg divided these submissions into three main categories: the biological basis of viral infection, future goals and expectations, and entrepreneurship. Throughout this portion of the webinar, Dr. Afeyan answered several questions: “Given the incredible demands on your time, how do you maintain a focus on creating and pursuing other opportunities? Why can’t the vaccine be administered as an inhalant or as a tablet? How can I, as a student, convince others that science is not a tool of convenience, rather it is a way to [envision] the future?” While answering, Dr. Afeyan frequently mentioned broader themes of science, innovation, and learning. He illustrated the concept of evolution, relating it to scientific discovery, and called on the need to foster “a fertile place for imagination.”

Over 700 people registered for the webinar; students, faculty, and parents all jumped at the opportunity to listen to a pioneer in so many different fields. One such teacher who attended the webinar was Ms. Labieniec, a physics teacher and the Institutional Researcher at Winsor. Reflecting on the webinar, she said, “Dr. Afeyan did an exceptionally communicative job discussing science, strategies for innovation, and his own experiences. I really appreciated how he was able to explain viruses in general (and COVID specifically) in an accessible yet rigorous way.” Winsor student Karla Sahin ’24 commented, “Not only did I learn about scientific innovation, but I also learned about the importance of using your voice and power to advocate for the scientific community.”

Much thought was put into organizing such an extraordinary event. When asked about the process of arranging the webinar, Ms. McMahon said, “The advancement teams at both Winsor and Belmont Hill had discussed the idea of hosting Dr. Afeyan as a speaker. This winter, Belmont Hill secured a date with Dr. Afeyan, and together, we decided to collaborate for a second year in a row on a dual community event, this time to virtually host Dr. Afeyan.” 

Mr. Schneider also commented on the remarkable job Dr. Goldberg did in facilitating the interview with Dr. Afeyan. When reflecting on the webinar, Dr. Goldberg said, “Interviewing Dr. Afeyan was like chatting with an old friend; he made the interview interesting, engaging, and informative. It was clear from the outset that Dr. Afeyan brought something very special to the conversation, and I felt honored to be part of it.” As Dr. Goldberg  spent more time preparing for the interview, he became more interested in Dr. Afeyan “as a person rather than as a CEO.” When asked about his experience moderating the webinar, Dr. Goldberg said, “I’ve always stressed the importance of finding a career that you are passionate about over one that looks good on your resume. Clearly, Dr. Afeyan is an example of someone who pursues his interests.”

The Winsor and Belmont Hill communities are thankful to Dr. Afeyan for imparting such insightful knowledge and advice in medicine and entrepreneurship. He touched on many crucial themes in great detail. However, the most important thing Dr. Afeyan spoke about during the webinar was his reflection on the courage to venture into the seemingly impossible. He stated, “The only failure worth avoiding is the failure to try.”

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