Yale News

Renowned gene therapy pioneer Jean Bennett ’76 will be this year’s Class Day speaker — delivering an online message about the future amid the cancellation of traditional graduation festivities.

Bennett is a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. Her research into retinal diseases led her to develop Luxturna — a gene therapy to treat Leber congenital amaurosis, a rare heritable disease that often results in blindness. Luxturna was the first gene therapy ever approved by the Federal Drug Administration for use in humans.

“I’m so humbled by this extraordinary experience,” Bennett said. “I got a letter in February … and I’ve got to say I was in shock when I received it. I was not expecting an invitation like that, and it took me a few days to equilibrate.”

Bennett told the News that she is incredibly honored to be able to speak at Class Day, especially given the “amazing historical people” who have delivered the address in the past. Recent Class Day speakers include writer Chimamanda Adichie GRD ’08, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton LAW ’73, Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein ’95, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power ’92, Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joseph Biden and former Secretary of State John Kerry ’66.

Yale has always been a major influence in Bennett’s life. Growing up in New Haven, she said she considered the University’s campus to be her “backyard.” In high school, Bennett joined the Yale Symphony Orchestra’s tour of Vienna as a viola player. She also worked in Yale’s biology labs before becoming an undergraduate.

“I definitely have a fondness for Yale and a connection that was based not only on those childhood experiences but also on being an undergraduate there and connecting with people beyond that time,” she added.

After graduating from Yale with a biology degree, Bennett earned a doctorate in zoology and cell and developmental biology from the University of California, Berkeley, as well as a medical degree from Harvard Medical School.

Since then, she has been researching treatments for different forms of inherited blindness and retinal diseases. The retina, she explained, has been an ideal body part to use in developing gene therapies because it is easy for both the doctor and the patient to determine if a given therapy is working.

“In her life’s work, Jean Bennett has modeled to our students the possibilities that come from recognizing a need and fearlessly working to address it, demonstrating that scholarship and service can — and should — go hand in hand,” University President Peter Salovey told Yale News. “Her Class Day address will catalyze Yale’s newest graduates to pursue their own careers and lives with similar conviction, compassion and connection.”

The global coronavirus pandemic has disrupted this year’s commencement ceremonies, including the usual Class Day celebrations.

The Class Day Committee, composed of five seniors — Sarah Geach ’20, Michelle Hu ’20, Ananya Indwar ’20, Nathan Isaacs ’20 and Calvin Schwartzberg ’20 — said they have revamped Class Day to build the “best possible” ceremony for the class of 2020.

“We have expanded Class Day to Class Week, with elements of the traditional Class Day released daily in snippets from May 11 to Dr. Bennett’s speech on May 17,” the Class Day Committee wrote in an email to the News. “Obviously, we cannot make up the experience of an in-person ceremony … but we’re doing our absolute best to still showcase the amazing work that our class has been working on.”

Bennett will deliver her address virtually on May 17. Members of the Yale community will be able to watch her live speech, or view a recording on their own time, according to the Class Day Committee.

Bennett said the current global pandemic changed how she went about writing the speech.

“I was thinking back to my own Class Day and how we wore funny hats and walked around New Haven, and how fun it was,” Bennett said. “Now things will be quite different. And if I were going to be on the campus [for this year’s celebrations,] it would be on an empty Old Campus, speaking to a bird … with a mask on.”

Bennett said she hopes her speech will convey empathy for graduating seniors, as well as share a message of resilience. In this unexpected time, she explained, there is lots of room to recalibrate and begin things “you haven’t dreamed of.”

Bennett was presented with the Sanford Lorraine Cross Award in 2018 for her medical breakthroughs relating to vision restoration.

Julia Brown | julia.k.brown@yale.edu

Julia Brown currently serves as a University Editor for the Yale Daily News. She previously covered the University's professional schools, including the Yale Law School and Yale School of Management. She is a junior in Jonathan Edwards majoring in Economics & Mathematics and is originally from Princeton, New Jersey.