Five to receive honorary degrees at Washington University’s 154th Commencement

Washington University in St. Louis will award five honorary degrees during the university’s 154th Commencement May 15.

During the ceremony, which will begin at 8:30 a.m. in Brookings Quadrangle on the Danforth Campus, the university will bestow academic degrees on approximately 2,800 members of the Class of 2015.

Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, who has directed and produced some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made, will deliver the Commencement address.

Referred to by The New York Times as “the most accomplished documentary filmmaker of his generation,” Burns will receive an honorary doctor of humanities degree from the university.

The other honorary degree recipients and their degrees are:

  • Mary-Dell Chilton, PhD, a distinguished science fellow at Syngenta Biotechnology Inc., and a key founder of modern plant biotechnology, doctor of science;
  • Gerald D. Fischbach, MD, an internationally renowned neuroscientist and chief scientist and fellow of the Simons Foundation, doctor of science;
  • Herbie Hancock, an icon of modern music who has had an illustrious career spanning five decades, doctor of humane letters; and
  • Susan Talve, the founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation, the only Jewish congregation located in the city of St. Louis, and named one of the nation’s most inspirational rabbis in 2014, doctor of humane letters.



In his more than 35 years of making films, Burns has explored such compelling topics in American history as the Civil War, the Dust Bowl, Prohibition and World War II.

In his most recent documentary, he takes on the complex topic of cancer. “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” is a six-hour, three-part series that covers cancer’s first documented appearance thousands of years ago in an ancient Egyptian scroll through today’s battles to cure, control and conquer it. The documentary premiered on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in March 2015.

Burns’ personal experience with cancer — losing his mother to breast cancer at age 11 — is one of the reasons he is a filmmaker today.

“From the age of three, I watched her suffer and struggle with this awful disease, forever creating for me a desire to explore the past and to listen deeply to the stories that we all have to tell, in a way, waking the dead,” Burns said.

“Burns is not only the greatest documentarian of the day, but also the most influential filmmaker period,” said David Zurawik, PhD, television critic of The Baltimore Sun, in 2009. “That includes feature filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. I say that because Burns not only turned millions of persons onto history with his films, he showed us a new way of looking at our collective past and ourselves.”

Burns’ films incorporate a filmmaking technique credited to him. The technique involves slowly panning from one subject to another or zooming in or out over still photographs, as if making history come alive. It is known as the “Ken Burns effect.”

His documentaries are also known for the use of archival film footage, period music, first-person narration and authentic sound effects. Among his most widely known films are three epic documentaries: “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “Jazz.”



While on the biology faculty at Washington University during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chilton led a collaborative research study that produced the first transgenic (genetically engineered) plants.

Her work pioneered the field of agricultural biotechnology and forever changed the way plant genetic research is conducted. She is recognized for her groundbreaking research and its continued impact on agriculture.

Chilton’s molecular research concerned a plant bacterium called Agrobacterium tumefaciens that creates a suitable environment for itself when it infects a plant by inserting some of its genes in the plant’s genome. The genes cause the plant to grow a gall, or tumor.

Chilton showed that it was possible to remove the tumor-causing genes in Agrobacterium and replace them with foreign genes. In this way, Agrobacterium was disarmed and could be used to transfer desirable genes into crop plants.

She has been called the “queen of Agrobacterium” in honor of this achievement.

Her work paved the way for crop improvement by genetic engineering and earned her the 2013 World Food Prize, often referred to as the “Nobel Prize for food and agriculture,” and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Washington University established an endowed professorship in her name, the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences. In 2009, biologist Barbara A. Schaal, PhD, now dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences, was installed as the inaugural holder of the professorship.

Chilton has been at Syngenta (formerly CIBA-Geigy Corp.) in Research Triangle Park, N.C., since leaving the university in 1983. Her roles there have included vice president of agricultural biotechnology and principal scientist.



Fischbach, widely recognized as a scientific leader and pioneering researcher in the United States, joined the Simons Foundation in 2006 to oversee the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative and now is the foundation’s first chief scientist and its first fellow. The foundation’s goal is to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences.

In his roles for the organization, Fischbach contributes to the foundation’s scientific endeavors, including its life sciences, mathematics and physical sciences divisions and its autism research initiative. He also spearheads collaborative projects in neuroscience research and advises the foundation on education and outreach.

Formerly, Fischbach served as dean of the faculty of health sciences at Columbia University and director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health.

He subsequently became the Edison Professor of Neurobiology and head of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at Washington University School of Medicine and, later, the Nathan Marsh Pusey Professor of Neurobiology and chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Fischbach studies the formation and maintenance of synapses, the contacts between nerves cells and their targets through which information is transferred in the nervous system.

He has been particularly interested in the neuromuscular junction, a synapse that is easily accessible to experimental manipulation. He pioneered the use of nerve cell cultures to study the shapes of nerve cells and the electrical and chemical signals they use to communicate among themselves and with muscle cells.



Over the last five decades, Hancock’s distinctive voice and relentless experimentation have made deep, foundational contributions to post-bop and fusion jazz while also shaping contemporary funk, soul, R&B and electronic music and influencing generations of hip-hop and techno artists.

Born in Chicago in 1940, Hancock was a child piano prodigy who began studying classical music at age 7 and, four years later, performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

A 1960 graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa with a double major in music and electrical engineering, he recorded his solo debut, “Takin’ Off,” in 1962.

The following year, Hancock joined the Miles Davis Quintet but continued to blossom as a solo artist. In 1973, the eponymous debut by Hancock’s band The Headhunters became the first jazz album to go platinum.

In 1983, he struck platinum again with “Future Shock,” while the single “Rockit” won a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental and became a programming staple on the newly launched MTV. Three years later, he won an Oscar for scoring the film “Round Midnight,” in which he also appeared as an actor.

In all, Hancock has recorded more than 50 solo albums and won 14 Grammy Awards, most recently earning Best Pop Collaboration and Best Improvised Jazz Solo for 2010’s “Herbie Hancock’s The Imagine Project.”

In 2007, he took Album of the Year honors for “River: The Joni Letters,” a tribute to Joni Mitchell. In 2013, he was among five recipients of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors. His memoir, “Herbie Hancock: Possibilities,” was published in 2014.



When other congregations were leaving the city for the suburbs, Talve rallied a small group to keep the vibrant Central Reform Congregation on the front lines of the fight against racism and poverty plaguing the urban center.

Selected in 2014 as one of the nation’s most inspirational rabbis by the national newspaper The Jewish Forward, Talve has led her congregation in promoting radical inclusivity by developing ongoing relationships with African-American and Muslim congregations and by fostering civil liberties for the LGBTQ community.

Based on a core value of radical hospitality, her congregation provides a safe home for many individuals and groups that have been marginalized.

She has performed same-gender marriages since she arrived in St. Louis in 1981 and was on the first Marriage Equality bus to Iowa where she married her first legal couple in 2009.

She also emerged as a spiritual leader in efforts to deal with unrest following the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, a young black man in Ferguson, Mo.

Month after month, Talve was on the streets with protesters in Ferguson and other St. Louis neighborhoods where demonstrations threatened to turn violent. She joined with other clergy to model the power of nonviolent demonstration while addressing the concerns of protesters and police.

Talve attributes her success to the relationships she has built by showing up — from street corners where violent crime has taken lives; to rallies for workers’ rights, gun control and access to health care; to the bedside of the suffering, regardless of religion, race or gender identification.