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Science pioneer J. Craig Venter to deliver 2011 Commencement address, six honorary degrees to be conferred

March 25, 2011

Sara Miller
(315) 443-9038

J. Craig Venter, a world-renowned scientist regarded as one of the most influential people in the world for his efforts to decode the human genome, will deliver the Commencement address to the 2011 graduates of Syracuse University, Syracuse University College of Law and the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) during Commencement exercises on Sunday, May 15, in the Carrier Dome.

At its 157th Commencement exercises, SU will present Venter with an honorary doctor of science degree, along with five individuals of exceptional achievement. The University will bestow honorary doctoral degrees upon SU Board of Trustees Chairman John H. Chapple ‘75, Nicholas Donofrio G’71, Jessie C. Gruman, Ei-ichi Negishi and Gerardine Wurzburg.

This is the first year that the College of Law is joining SU and SUNY-ESF in celebrating Commencement in the Carrier Dome, embarking upon a new tradition of holding one ceremony together.

venterIn 1992, Venter founded The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), a not-for-profit research institute, where in 1995 he and his team decoded the genome of the first free-living organism, the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae, using his new whole genome shotgun technique. Recognized by TIME Magazine as one of the “most influential people in the world,” Venter universally is regarded as the principal leader in the effort to decode the human genome. Most recently, in May 2010 he announced the creation of the first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell, based on his ongoing research.

Today, Venter is founder, chairman and president of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), a not-for-profit, research organization with approximately 400 scientists and staff dedicated to human, microbial, plant and environmental genomic research, the exploration of social and ethical issues in genomics, and to seeking alternative energy solutions through genomics—the study of genes and their function that aims to understand the structure of the genome, including the mapping and sequencing of DNA. Venter is also founder and CEO of Synthetic Genomics Inc., a privately held company dedicated to commercializing genomic-driven solutions to address global energy and environmental challenges.

“Craig Venter boldly transcends boundaries to take on some of the greatest challenges and questions of our time,” says SU Chancellor and President Nancy Cantor. “As a renowned scientist, entrepreneur and environmentalist he embodies the cross-cutting approach needed to address the complex, intertwined problems facing the world—all of which positions him to deliver a message to our graduating students that is both unique and timely as they go out into the world to make a difference.”

Venter began his formal education after a tour of duty as a Navy Corpsman in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. After earning both a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, and a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from the University of California at San Diego, he was appointed professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute. In 1984, he moved to the National Institutes of Health campus, where he developed Expressed Sequence Tags, or ESTs, a revolutionary new strategy for rapid gene discovery.

Following his breakthrough discoveries in 1995, Venter founded Celera Genomics in 1998 to sequence the human genome using new tools and techniques he and his team developed. This research culminated with the February 2001 publication of the human genome in the journal Science. He and his team at Celera also sequenced the fruit fly, mouse and rat genomes.

Venter and his team at JCVI continue to blaze new trails in genomics research, having sequenced hundreds of genomes, and having published numerous important papers covering such areas as environmental genomics, synthetic genomics and the first complete diploid human genome in 2007, along with groundbreaking advances in creating the first synthetic genome.

Venter is the author of more than 250 research articles. He is also the recipient of numerous honorary degrees, public honors and scientific awards, including the 2008 United States National Medal of Science, the 2002 Gairdner Foundation International Award and the 2001 Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize. He is a member of numerous prestigious scientific organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Society for Microbiology.

The Commencement speaker is chosen through an annual selection process that gives students, staff, faculty, alumni and others in the University community the opportunity to offer speaker suggestions via a website. The process begins more than one year in advance of Commencement. All names submitted through the website are compiled in an alphabetical, unranked list and sent to the official speaker selection committee, which is comprised of senior class marshals, student marshals from each of the University’s schools and colleges and student representatives to the University’s Board of Trustees.

This all-student committee reviews the list of names. Following a thoughtful deliberation process, the committee presents a final, unranked list of proposed speakers to the Chancellor, who then reviews the list and makes a final choice on the basis of relevance to the SU community, availability and reasonableness of cost. Venter was among those on the student selection committee’s final list and has agreed to address the Class of 2011 graduates.

2011 Honorary Degree Candidates

John H. Chapple ‘75
Doctor of Humane Letters

chappleJohn Chapple is chairman of the Syracuse University Board of Trustees and is among the nation’s most prescient and skilled business executives and a generous philanthropist. Currently, he is president of Hawkeye Investments LLC, a privately owned equity firm investing primarily in telecommunications and real estate.

Chapple built on his early experience in the cable television and cellular phone industries to become a revered leader in telecommunications over the course of more than 25 years, during which his positions have included president, CEO and chairman of the board of Nextel Partners and its subsidiaries. Among the many boards on which he has served are Cellular One Group (chairman), the Personal Communications Industry Association and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He also has served on the board of governors of the NHL, the NBA and the board of directors of Yahoo! Inc.

At SU, Chapple has leveraged his experience and expertise for students, faculty and staff through his work on the Syracuse University Board of Trustees and the Maxwell School Board of Advisors. As the current chairman of the SU Board of Trustees, he has led the board through critical decision making and leadership development to support success at all levels of the University, including having added representatives of both the faculty and the deans to the board’s membership, restructuring the board to improve efficiency and effectiveness, and advocating extraordinarily effectively for SU in fundraising through the core period of its most ambitious campaign ever.

In addition to applying his business leadership skills to his work on the Syracuse University Board of Trustees, Chapple has been recognized by his peers for his transformative philanthropy. He has given extraordinary gifts to SU that exemplify the positive impact of philanthropy on the lives of faculty members and students, directly supporting academic programs through the Chapple Family Chair in the Maxwell School and the Robin Toner Endowment in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Students also feel his tangible support through his leadership contributions to financial aid, such the “Keep ‘Em ‘Cuse” campaign, and to SU Athletics, such as through a naming gift within the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center. With a clear vision of the essential connection of SU’s success to the success of the diverse next generation of school children, he also has strongly supported Say Yes to Education, the precedent-setting urban school reform project being implemented in Syracuse by SU, the Syracuse City School District and the Say Yes to Education Foundation.

Chapple received his bachelor’s degree from SU’s College of Arts and Sciences in 1975 and is a graduate of Harvard University’s Advanced Management Program. He is an active supporter and volunteer in Habitat for Humanity, and provides philanthropic support to conservancy programs and cancer research.

Nicholas Donofrio G‘71
Doctor of Science

donofrioNicholas Donofrio’s 40-year career at IBM is marked by a series of exceptional achievements in computer chip technology, corporate leadership and strategies for continuous innovation. He retired in 2008 as executive vice president of innovation and technology and is widely credited for IBM’s transition from manufacturing computers to becoming an innovation leader in providing technology solutions for businesses.

Recognizing Donofrio’s extensive knowledge and experience in international business, the U.S. Council on Competitiveness appointed him a charter member in the National Innovation Initiative, launched in 2004. The initiative helped shape the America Competes Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in August 2007 and which promotes American business innovation and education and work-force training in strategic areas of national need. Donofrio holds seven technology patents, and has recently launched a groundbreaking five-year research partnership—the Genographic Project—between IBM and the National Geographic Society to map how human beings populated the planet and trace ancestral footprints.

Under his direction, IBM in 2004 launched the Global Innovation Outlook (GIO), a widely watched annual review of the greatest technological challenges of our time. As organized and implemented by Donofrio, experts from business, politics, academia and nonprofits engage in public, free-form conversations identifying areas of deep societal need and developing ideas for revolutionary innovation. An example is the current GIO effort aimed at developing technologies, deepening public understanding and creating partnerships around the need for potable, reliable water supplies for people throughout the world.

Donofrio’s achievements have been recognized across the world. For his scientific achievements, he has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the engineering organization of the National Academies. He is also a fellow of the UK-based Royal Academy of Engineering, a member of the board of directors for the Bank of New York and serves on the board of trustees at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). In 2006, Donofrio was named by Business Week as one of the top 25 Innovation Champions. In 2002, the Institution of Electrical Engineers—the largest professional engineering society in Europe—recognized Donofrio with the Mensforth International Gold Medal for outstanding contributions to the advancement of manufacturing engineering. In 2003, he was named Industry Week magazine’s Technology Leader of the Year, and the University of Arizona’s Technical Executive of the Year.

In addition to his international leadership in global technologies, Donofrio has devoted a large portion of his professional career to advocating for, and advancing the careers of, minority students in engineering. In this role, he served a five-year term (1997-2002) as chair of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), the primary industry-based organization promoting minorities in engineering. Under his leadership, NACME provided funding for college education to thousands of undergraduate engineering students and the organization broadened its efforts to include Ph.D. students by joining with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to manage the Sloan Minority Ph.D. program. In addition, Donofrio has taken a leading role in fostering career development of minority youth as a member of the board of directors for INROADS, a not-for-profit organization focused on preparing talented minority youth for professional careers in business and industry. In 2003, he was awarded the Rodney D. Chipp Memorial Award by the Society of Women Engineers for his outstanding contributions to the advancement of women the engineering.

Donofrio received his master of science degree in electrical engineering from SU’s L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science in 1971.

Jessie C. Gruman
Doctor of Humane Letters

grumanJessie C. Gruman is president of the Center for Advancing Health, a nonpartisan Washington-based policy institute funded by foundations and individuals in 1992 to work on patient engagement. With the philosophy that people will not benefit from the health care available to them unless they can participate fully and competently in it, Gruman draws on her own experience of treatment for four cancer diagnoses, plus surveys, peer-reviewed research and interviews with patients and caregivers as the basis of her work to —and advocate for policies and practices to overcome—the challenges people face in finding and good care and getting the most from it.

Gruman has worked on this same set of concerns in the private sector (AT&T), the public sector (National Cancer Institute) and the voluntary health sector (American Cancer Society).

Gruman was honored by Research!America for her leadership in advocacy for health research and received honorary doctorates from Brown University, Carnegie Mellon University, Clark University, Georgetown University, New York University, Northeastern University, Salve Regina University and Tulane University and the Presidential Medal of The George Washington University. She is a fellow of the Society for Behavioral Medicine, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Gruman is the author of “The Experience of the American Patient: Risk, Trust and Choice” (Health Behavior Media, 2009), “Behavior Matters” (Health Behavior Media, 2008) and “AfterShock: What to Do When the Doctor Gives You—or Someone You Love—a Devastating Diagnosis” (Walker Publishing, second edition, 2010), as well as scientific papers and opinion essays and articles.

She holds a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College and a Ph.D. in social psychology from Columbia University, and is a professorial lecturer in the School of Public Health and Health Services at The George Washington University. She serves on the board of trustees of the Center for Medical Technology Policy and the Technical Board of the Milbank Memorial Fund.

Ei-ichi Negishi
Doctor of Science

negishiEi-ichi Negishi is the H.C. Brown Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Purdue University and an internationally recognized leader in the field of organic chemistry. This year, his contributions received special recognition as he was named one of three co-recipients of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Negishi began his academic career at SU as assistant professor in 1972 and received promotion to professor in 1979. During his time at Syracuse, Negishi began work on a series of groundbreaking papers describing coupling reactions, including one reaction that bears his name: a transformation that employs a palladium or nickel catalyst to form a carbon-carbon bond between an organometallic reagent containing zinc, aluminum, or zirconium and an organic halide. The coupling reactions Negishi developed have been widely used by organic chemists to synthesize and modify a variety of drugs, vitamins, plastics, natural products and other materials used in the health and energy fields.

Since his time at SU, Negishi has continued to break new ground in his field. He has published more than 400 research papers and two books, including the two-volume “Handbook of Organopalladium Chemistry for Organic Synthesis” (Wiley-Interscience, 2002). He has received numerous awards and honors, including a Fulbright Scholarship (1960-1963), a J.S. Guggenheim Fellowship (1987), the Chemical Society of Japan Award (1996), ACS Award in Organometallic Chemistry (1998), the ACS Award for Creativity in Organic Synthesis (2010), the Sir Edward Frankland Prize of the Royal Society of Chemistry (2000), the Alexander von Humboldt Senior Research Award in Germany (1998) and the Yamada-Koge Prize in Japan (2007).

The Nobel Prize Committee recently described Negishi’s coupling reactions as “great art in a test tube” and “one of the most sophisticated tools available to organic chemists today.” According to the committee, Negishi’s pioneering research has paved the way for the development of pharmaceuticals and other products that have been used to improve the well-being of people all over the world.

Gerardine Wurzburg
Doctor of Letters

wurzburgGerardine Wurzburg is a remarkable documentary film producer who has used the film medium to encourage dialogue and social change. By sharing the inner thoughts (made public through typing) of those with autism who don’t speak, for example, Wurzburg exposes the competence of individuals who prior to this would have been labeled profoundly retarded. This, in turn, has impacted educators’ commitment to including these individuals in the educational experiences available to all students.

What makes Wurzburg’s work so compelling is her remarkable ability to enter the lives of her subjects through spending hours upon hours with them to elicit their feelings, thoughts and viewpoints to a degree not seen in the work of others covering similar issues. Through her work, Wurzburg changes the “subject” into the “writer” and has individuals with disabilities narrate their own lives; their narration reveals people who are fully present, feeling, humorous and optimistic about finding a place in the world where they can shine. Society is pressed to respond to the picture presented by Wurzburg, which is at once realistic and challenging.

Wurzburg has won the top prizes in documentary film making including the Japan Prize, Blue Ribbon of the American Film Institute, Henry Hampton Award, Edward R. Murrow Award for Broadcast Documentary, six Freddie Awards for International Health Communication, five National Academy of TV Arts and Sciences Emmys, a CINE Golden Eagle for Best International Film, the Cable ACE Award for Best Documentary Director and the National Education Association Award for the Advancement of Learning Through Broadcast.

Wurzburg won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short in 1992 for “Educating Peter” (HBO, 1992), a film that documented how including Peter, a child with Down syndrome, in a regular third-grade class taught his classmates coping, understanding, tolerance and caring; as his classmates changed, so did Peter. Another of Wurzburg’s films, “Autism is a World” (HBO, 2004), was nominated for an Academy Award in 2004. In this film, Susie Rubin, a college student with autism, helps the viewer understand how competent she is, while at the same time lamenting that she can’t help behaving as she does. Wurzburg’s film “Regular Lives,” which aired recently once again on PBS (Blue Ribbon award), was recognized for more than a decade as the leading documentary on school inclusion. In her most recent work, “Wretches & Jabberers,” two men with autism embark on a global quest to change attitudes about disability and intelligence. Determined to put a new face on autism, Tracy Thresher and Larry Bissonnette, travel to Sri Lanka, Japan and Finland.

Wurzburg’s credits go significantly beyond issues of disability. Her work touches on social justice more broadly, for example the film “We Dig Coal” (PBS, 1982) about the first American women coal miners; her retrospective “President Kennedy Has Been Shot” (CNN, 2003), which was the most-watched documentary in 2003; and films on health issues such as deciphering the human genome and cancer. For more than 20 years, Wurzburg has documented health issues that matter and the lives and perspectives of people who are overlooked in contemporary society. Wurzburg highlights personal struggles that are very much civil rights issues. The result is a call for change that has impacted attitudes and research in the fields of education and health.

For updated information on Commencement Weekend 2011, visit

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