UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright today awarded three-time alumnus Darin Edwards ’97 ’10MS ’11PhD an honorary doctoral degree in public service, praising his “extraordinary contributions to humanity, including incredible endeavors in global public health that have saved lives, reduced human suffering and safeguarded the health of countless millions of fellow humans around the world.”
Edwards, who led the development of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine as the company’s director of immunology, inspired UCF’s 2020 graduates as the keynote speaker for the long-awaited in-person commencement ceremony for the Class of 2020.
Before awarding Edwards his honorary degree, Cartwright said, “The tenets of the UCF Creed are integrity, scholarship, community, creativity, and excellence and you embody each to its fullest as a scientist, leader, mentor, collaborator and global citizen.
“As a three-time graduate of the University of Central Florida, holding both a master’s degree and a doctorate in biomedical sciences and a bachelor’s degree in biology, you are an inspiration to UCF’s students, faculty, staff, and community. Your ingenuity, care for humankind and impact are everything the university could wish for from an alumnus.”
Addressing graduates, Edwards recalled how when he and his team were developing the vaccine, they “worked around the clock without breaks to comprehensively evaluate the approach, systematically working to make sure we covered every safety and effectiveness concern, to compress timelines that normally take years or decades into months while still performing the most comprehensive and inclusive research and clinical activities that I’ve ever been a part of.”
He credited the daily “support, hugs, love, affection and sacrifice” of his family for helping him during that stretch, and also said “a well-rounded education and willingness to look past the status quo enabled me to tackle unique and critical problems that we encountered on a daily basis.”
He also discussed the importance in his academic, personal and professional development of “a bold acceptance of risk, tolerance for failures and remaining undaunted in the face of those failures and finding new paths to success.”
“My career has been very convoluted, guided by my inherent restlessness and curiosity,” he said. “Where others saw risk, I saw opportunity. I graduated with my B.S. way back in 1997 and landed a nice job in the technology space where I was climbing the corporate ladder. Despite that, though I constantly questioned whether this was truly what I wanted to do with my career. Then one day I saw that UCF was expanding its health programs, and I decided to leave my job and change my career. So where other people might consider returning to school in your early 30s to be a sign of failure, I was more interested in exploring a career path that had a better chance to change the world.
“Science is that way as well. There’s a safe path, one where small advancements might be developed. Other paths are more risky but can lead to revolutionary discoveries and medicines that are completely new, but often encounter obstacles that lead to failure. The latter, however, is most likely to lead to a world-changing outcome. My career is built on the back of that risk…taking the road less traveled and affecting my own outcome. Moderna’s COVID vaccine is as well, built on 10 years of development work with billions spent on that process. Without a group of talented and idealistic researchers putting their careers, reputations, and brain power behind that development there would have been no mRNA vaccines last year, and the millions of lives saved since would have remained at risk.”
Of his time at UCF, Edwards told graduates, “UCF provided me with the opportunity to explore broadly, enabling me to become the well-rounded person and scientist that I am today. It also, frankly, was a lot of fun. I mentioned the lifelong friends I made here, and the memories I made are ones that I cherish. My hope is that some of your friends and your memories are as strong.”
The in-person commencement ceremony, which expected more than 1,700 graduates from the Class of 2020, kicked off Homecoming weekend on campus. UCF conferred more than 18,000 degrees during its 2020 virtual commencement ceremonies.
At UCF, Edwards earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1997, a master’s in molecular biology and microbiology in 2010 and a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences in 2017. Edwards was also a Burnett Honors Scholar.