On September 22, 2009, the Samuel and Ethel LeFrak Auditorium was filled to capacity, while another 140 members of the Einstein community filled specially designated overflow seating on the third floor of the Michael F. Price Center for Genetic and Translational Medicine/Harold and Muriel Block Research Pavilion. All had come to see and hear Tabaré Vázquez, M.D., the President of Uruguay, who paid a visit to Einstein and delivered a speech on "Science, Medicine and Social Commitment."
"This topic was extremely appropriate for an institution like Einstein, whose faculty combines the highest academic standards with a profound sensitivity towards social issues," recalls Dr. Alberto Pereda, one of three Einstein investigators who are from Uruguay and also are members of the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience.
Uruguay's President Dr. Tabaré Vázquez
with Einstein Dean Dr. Allen M. Spiegel Although currently the leader of a South American nation that neighbors Argentina and Brazil, Dr. Vázquez, first and foremost, is a physician and scientist. An academic oncologist, he still maintains a medical practice and, prior to his entry into politics, had served as chair of radiotherapy at the School of Medicine, Universidad de la República.
"The idea of inviting Dr. Vázquez originated in 2006," explains Dr. Pablo Castillo, another of Einstein faculty from Uruguay. "We were particularly interested in having the chance to hear directly from an academic physician about what led him to public service and social activism."
The President's background in medicine has led to a number of policies that demonstrate his advocacy for improved health in his nation. For one, Uruguay has been recognized as the first nation in the Americas to be completely smoke-free in all public areas. He also has implemented social programs that have led to a dramatic reduction in poverty and improvements in education, and he has led investigations into human rights violations committed under the military dictatorship that ruled in Uruguay during the 1970s.
"For those of us living abroad, the accomplishments of his administration concerning these issues in Uruguay are a great source of pride and hope for our nation," says José Luis Peña, the third Uruguayan in the trio.
During his speech, which he delivered in Spanish, Dr. Vázquez noted that the same passion to serve humanity that got him into medicine also led him into politics. He began, "It's not easy for me to express in words these reasons that also have a good dose of passion, but perhaps the most apt reasons are a profound love of life, enormous respect for human beings, a strong commitment to the dignity of everyone, and unalterable confidence in society."
He added, "They are reasons and passions shared by those of us here today and many others who are not here but who accompany us… But it's not enough: these reasons and passions need to be translated into actions and concrete results."
After stating that he believed "science, medicine, and politics give us the opportunity, which is also a responsibility, to mold the future," President Vázquez discussed the roles that science and politics play in shaping modern society. He said, "…it's not enough to just have democracies, we must also have democrats, we must have citizens."
Dr. Vázquez with Einstein students He also discussed the progress made in his nation, noting, "…we do not forget or deny the past (on the contrary: we promote arriving at the truth and approaching justice regarding terrible events in our country's recent past), but we live in the present looking toward the future."
"In spite of its small population, the constant brain-drain, and the comparatively low-investment in science for the region, Uruguay has remarkably high scientific productivity. In particular, it has a strong foundation in the basic sciences, most notably in the life sciences (neuroscience, genetics and human reproduction), notes Dr. Castillo"
Dr. Vázquez invited those in attendance "to be, not only better physicians, but also better citizens because we are this above diplomas or positioned citizens."
The President's visit was made possible with help and guidance from the Uruguayan Mission to the United Nations and its consulate in New York, along with Drs. Pereda, Castillo, and Peña.
"It was of particular pride for us Uruguayans to have Dr. Vázquez with us," says Dr. Pereda. "He represents a long tradition of social values among many individuals in the Uruguayan medical and academic community."
In closing remarks, Dr. Pereda—speaking on behalf of his compatriots and the College of Medicine—said, "As a native of Uruguay I feel proud that Dr. Vázquez took the time form his busy international schedule to be with us this afternoon. I feel equally proud to be part of this Einstein community, which has a dedication to global health, for organizing this event." Then addressing President Vázquez, he added, "We, like you, believe that academic excellence and social commitment have equal priority in our universe of discourse… As you can see Mr. President, Uruguay and this country are indeed united nations in health."
The event concluded with a reception in the Price Center/Block Pavilion lobby, during which students, staff and faculty had the opportunity to meet with President Vázquez, to chat with him, and to pose for memorable photographs.
"The success of Dr. Vázquez's visit demonstrates once more that conducting superb science, combined with the highest regard for humanity are values that remain vibrant at Einstein," says Dr. Peña.
To watch Dr. Vázquez's speech, please click here.
(To view slideshow of photo gallery, click on an image below; then move your mouse over the left or right margins to navigate.)
Posted on: Thursday, October 29, 2009