BC Hosts Leading CEO, Cancer Surgeon For First ‘Presidential Lecture’

President Michelle Anderson speaks with Dr. Selwyn M. Vickers./Kaylin Guzman

By Gabriela Flores

Reporting Assistance By Kaylin Guzman


   Brooklyn College hosted Dr. Selwyn M. Vickers, the CEO and president of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, to discuss health disparities, the future of cancer research, and his upbringing with President Michelle Anderson on Feb. 2. Vickers’ visit marked the college’s first “Presidential Lecture,” and announced CUNY’s partnership with New York Jobs CEO Council, an organization that partners with top companies to hire more New Yorkers. 

   “The idea behind the ‘Presidential Lecture’ series is do exactly what we just did, introduce new and engaging ideas, show courageous leadership, and really give a model for civic engagement,” President Anderson told The Vanguard. “Here’s somebody who has a whole history that he’s bringing to the research he’s working on and is such an inspiring person in terms of his personal attributes and his expertise. He seemed like the perfect person to launch this.”    

   The council, which Vickers boards, aided 1,800 CUNY students in finding employment in 2021. Its partners include JP Morgan, Google, Amazon, and others that pledged to collectively hire at least 25,000 CUNY students by 2030, according to the council’s Executive Director Kiersten Barnet, who spoke at the event’s opening.     

   During their hour-long conversation, Anderson and Vickers discussed how disparities in health and other components of society have been exacerbated due to COVID-19. According to Vickers, a significant determinant of a person’s quality of life is more dependent on their surroundings or “zip code” than their genetic makeup. 

   “Health disparities are a reflection of the disparities that exist in our country. Over time they’ve been magnified, but I think one of the best examples of health disparities is breast cancer,” said Vickers. To date, women of color die at higher rates than white women when it comes to breast cancer. This discrepancy is related to the lack of access to mammograms, which subsequently leads to late detection and diagnosis. These discrepancies, however, did not always exist. With the advent of mammograms, or X-ray examinations of breasts, new technology became accessible to those who could afford its high prices. 

    “So those people who had resources, who had access, got mammograms – got their cancers diagnosed earlier, got to live longer. Those people who didn’t have access didn’t have the resources, didn’t get mammograms,” said Vickers. 

   For those working on the medical frontlines, delivering treatment while tackling these disparities brings on the challenge of “nibbling around the edges of the problem,” Vickers explained. To address these issues, trusted organizations or communities could help improve disparities on the ground. 

   During the pandemic, several essential workers, those living with chronic diseases, or residing in a high-density home, were largely impacted. People of color were mostly affected by COVID-19, with Native Americans having “suffered greatly,” according to Vickers. 

   With the rollout of COVID vaccines came vaccine skepticism. As quickly as the vaccine developed in the span of eight months, and advanced medical biology, other issues were not given equal attention. 

   “We missed the opportunity for people to carry forward the trust they have every day in the healthcare system. And I don’t know if I would have a simple solution for it,” said Vickers, noting that patients have the right to deny or accept medical care. 

   With Memorial Sloan Kettering and Brooklyn College’s Cancer Center being two of the many organizations researching cancer treatment, findings show that the future of cancer care is progressing. MSK was previously awarded a Nobel Prize for its research on how the immune system can be an agent in combating cancer. Researchers found that an “immunological surveillance” in the human immune system may have encountered different cancers before, detected them as bacteria or “foreign,” and eventually killed the invading cells. Capitalizing the immune system could work better than drugs for cancer care, Vickers explained. 

    “You can’t have drugs in your system, particularly for your entire life for 24 hours a day. But your immune system is on guard your entire life, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” said Vickers. 

    Before delving into their discussion of the medical field and its challenges, Anderson and Vickers first discussed his family’s history. As a leading pancreatic cancer surgeon and medical academic, Vickers’ upbringing shaped his perseverance today. His grandfather, who struggled academically given the lack of educational access and opportunity for African American men at the time, overcame several obstacles, including learning how to write. Later, he became a baptist minister and mayor of his town. On the other hand, Vickers’ grandmother aspired to become an engineer in the 1920s, taking care of her children while attending school. 

   “She clearly made me very aware that her belief was that education was the great equalizer. If you get training, you had the opportunity to better your life,” Vickers said. The Alabama-born doctor also discussed how his father, a Korean War veteran who graduated top of his class, was the eldest of his siblings and instilled in Vickers the responsibility of being an older sibling.

   “He reminded me that part of his ethos as an older son, which my mom carried in a similar fashion, we have a responsibility for those who come after us – both how we perform, how we use our resources, and how we think about our future,” Vickers said. 

   Vickers first gained a view of the medical field through his uncle, a family practitioner, at 15.  He completed his professional and surgical training at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Hospital, with his wife’s support and their four children. Back in 2017, Vickers and his daughter wrote an article about feeling burnt out and the importance of not letting failures define one’s journey but rather fuel it forward. 

   “Part of our challenge with burnout is often perspective – and that often sometimes is missing because all of us have a story about someone who made a sacrifice for you. If they burned out, you wouldn’t be here today,” Vickers said. “Yes, we get tired, we get discouraged, all normal things, but those things should not determine what we end up doing.” 

   The college aims to host another two events for the “Presidential Lecture” series this spring, with dates yet to be announced. 

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