Dr. Shinya Yamanaka Visits Belmont Hill

On March 31, Belmont Hill invited Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, as a guest speaker in the Kageyama-Hunt Lecture Series. The global citizenship speaker program was established in 2012 by Belmont Hill parents, Bill Hunt and Yuko Kageyama-Hunt P ’11, ’18, to inspire Belmont Hill students to face the challenges of the modern world. 


Jonathan Kraft ’82, P ’15 started the program by introducing both Dr. Yamanaka and the moderator for the event, Dean of Harvard Medical School George Q. Daley P ’17, ’19. Mr. Kraft reminisced about his days as a Belmont Hill student and said that although those years were the best of his life, he had one deep regret – not engaging in enough scientific rigor. As a student, he was intimated by the topics. He had little background in the sciences; however, by meeting the best scientists and visiting the finest hospitals in his professional career, Mr. Kraft realized that he has a passion for science and also the ability to learn it. To those students who are similarly intimated by the science classes, Mr. Kraft hoped that listening to Dr. Daley and Dr. Yamanaka would open their minds. Especially in the context of the pandemic, the role of science is vital to society. He wishes that scientists, whose work “touches everybody in the world… and can improve their lives,” can inspire students like great athletes, artists, and business people. 


Dr. Shinya Yamanka’s Nobel Prize-winning technology, as Dr. Daley recalled, was “earth-shattering” when he first observed a talk Dr. Yamanka gave in 2006. At the time, the scientific community was developing a promising procedure that had the potential to cure an array of diseases and disabilities, from Parkinson’s Disease to diabetes to spinal cord injuries; however, the process was highly controversial. Scientists utilized the pluripotent nature of embryonic stem cells to manufacture any desired cell type. But many considered the embryonic stem cells obtained from fertilization clinics to be a nascent form of human life. Dr. Yamanaka bypassed this ethical dilemma by creating a process that would not use embryonic stem cells: his technology could convert human skin and blood cells back to stem cells, hence the name induced pluripotent (iPS) stem cells. His discovery opened a free path for further stem cell research, which could further vital applications like regenerative medicine and drug development. The impact of his discovery has been very broad; other conditions that iPS cells can treat are eye diseases, heart diseases, cancer, and type 1 diabetes. Dr. Yamanaka also founded the Center for iPS Cell Research and Applications (CiRA) in 2008. The institution focuses on critical applications of iPS cells.  


While Dr. Yamanka provided insight into his discovery of iPS stem cells, he gave an entertaining presentation focused on his journey through the scientific world. Dr. Yamanaka’s inspiration was his father. When Dr. Yamanaka was around fifteen years old, his father was injured at work. He needed a blood transfusion, but in the process, he got hepatitis which at the time was unknown and incurable. As his dad became weaker and weaker in his high school days, Dr. Yamanaka became interested in medicine. With the encouragement of his dad, he became a doctor. At 57 years old, his father was still very sick. Dr. Yamanaka performed a minor procedure on his father, who was delighted with his son’s help; however, he passed away a year later. The helplessness Dr. Yamanaka felt convinced him to change his career to become a scientist to help patients around the world, like his father, who had intractable diseases. He went to the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, and there he gained valuable experience and adopted a life motto – VW. Not the car his mentor Bob Mahley owned; instead, the secret to success in science and life is vision and hard work. Dr. Yamanaka is especially fond of vision because it is often overlooked: hard work compliments vision. Throughout his career, Dr. Yamanaka’s vision has been to overcome diseases with science. Through hard work, he has discovered a technology that has the power to save many lives around the world. 


Through his discussion with Dr. Daley and the Q&A session, Dr. Yamanka shared his passion for science and humble insights into the field. He provided an amusing story of the moment he was chosen to be the Nobel Prize winner. As he was fixing the washing machine, per his wife’s request, he received a phone call while on the floor that he had won the award. Although he failed to fix the machine, the government gifted him a new washing machine. He also recalled his first experiment in which he found a very unexpected result. It excited him so much that he wanted to continue being a scientist. 


Throughout the entire program, Dr. Yamanka provided the critical trait of a scientist: patience. “Science is a streamline of scientists’ works”, a process of hard work and perseverance. He did not discover iPS cells in one moment. Instead, he built off the results of other scientists. Specifically, he learned from the cloning of Dolly the sheep that completely differentiated cells can create new life by cloning. And the conversion of cell fate by one transcription factor, like skin cells to muscle cells or fly antenna cells to legs. Through those previous findings, Dr. Yamanaka hypothesized that it was possible to convert adult skin cells to embryonic stem cells by a small number of factor combinations. As Dr. Daley added, “even though we like to have a mythology that science happens through these brilliant surges of ideas and all of a sudden, in fact, it’s a slow and steady process.” Dr. Yamanka’s father passed away in 1998; a year later, the virus he was infected with, hepatitis c, was discovered. In 2014, scientists found a cure and produced an easily available drug, Harvoni, which can cure it through the daily consumption of it. Although the drug was not created in time for Dr. Yamanaka’s father, it now can cure a once intractable disease. Through patience, researchers can work out the rules and powers of science in a meaningful way. 


As Jonathan Kraft had hoped, Belmont Hill students witnessed an engaging program that enlightened them with the potential and exhilaration of science through the glimpse of scientific discovery and the passion of world-class scientists.  


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