Lala: Do what you love rather than what is easiest

The pursuit of one’s passions, with the help of good mentorship, will shape legacies of graduates today, said Peeyush Lala, professor emeritus and past chair of Western’s Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology.

Lala, who also taught in the Department of Oncology, spoke to graduates from the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Faculty of Science and Faculty of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies at the Thursday, June 13 morning session of Western’s 301st Convocation.

Western conferred an honorary Doctor of Science, honoris causa (D.Sc.), upon Lala in recognition of an extraordinary life dedicated to understanding cellular mechanisms of both reproduction and cancer.

The message I want to share today is composed of simple questions whose pursuit shaped my life and career, Lala said. “What is my passion and how do I remain true to that passion? Who are my role models and what am I to learn from them? What is to be my legacy and how do I give back?”

Lala studied at Calcutta University, India, where he completed Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degrees, an MD and a PhD degree in Medical Biophysics. He taught pathology there from 1959-62, moving to the United States to work at the Argonne National Laboratory in 1963. A year later, he took up the post of assistant professor at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco.

Canada welcomed Lala in 1967 when he started working at Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories, going on to teach and gain a full professorship at McGill University’s Anatomy and Cell Biology Department.

Renowned for being a pioneering researcher in his field, Lala bridged two biomedical disciplines by looking at both cancer and reproduction. He developed an innovative therapy for advanced melanomas and kidney cancers and his research goals focus on preventing fetal-maternal illnesses and developing new modes of breast cancer therapy.

A new experimental therapy, one of Lala’s most recent projects, combines hormone and arthritis drugs. It has stopped the spread of cancer in mice and human trials could start in London within a few short months.

His research dealing with human placenta is making strides in the health of the unborn and newborn in post-natal life.

Lala also devotes time to community outreach, social work and public speaking in the sciences, in media and to high school students.

In addition to a passion for scientific discovery, he enjoys exploring the relationship between science and spirituality and promotes interfaith dialogues.

Lala told the graduates mentors ranging from his father, to philanthropists, monks and academics instilled in him a pursuit of knowledge and a desire to use science and education as a tool for serving others.

“I learned early on to be happy in life and my career; I had to do what I loved rather than doing what was easiest,” he said.

In his citation, Andrew Watson, associate dean of research for Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies, said Lala’s work has, over five decades, “consistently enlightened our understanding of the mechanisms that control embryo implantation, placental development and cancer metastasis.”

“Though his excellence is obvious and cannot be denied, he is here today because of the total person he is and the person he has always been. Dr. Lala is simply the most passionate, enthusiastic and tireless investigator that I have ever had the privilege to meet. I have known him since my PhD days more than two decades ago now, and he has not changed a bit,” Watson said.

“When I see Dr. Lala now, I am certain that I am still seeing the young man who set out on a research quest so many years ago. His passion for research is inexhaustible. His former and current students respect him greatly. Many have become faculty members at Universities around the world and research leaders in their own right. I am very proud to have known him for so long and also to have been one of his unofficial students, which is a role I still cherish.”

To help graduates answer the three questions he posed at the outset, Lala offered the following advice.

“Please don’t abandon your dreams. (As for) mentors, my prediction is, you will find them wherever you go,” he said.

“My request to all of you, be unselfish in sharing whatever you can give, your knowledge, expertise, or wealth. The world needs more and more of all of you.”

Also during the ceremony, Jane Rylett, Physiology and Pharmacology professor, was named a Distinguished University Professor, while Schulich professor Anita Woods received the Marilyn Robinson Award for Excellence in Teaching. The Honourable G. Howard Ferguson Award was presented to Jennifer Trung and the status of professor emeritus was conferred upon Schulich professors Jack Bend and Tutis Vilis.