Yale News

Imagining her Class Day address in the time of coronavirus, renowned gene therapist Jean Bennett ’76 sees herself on “an empty Old Campus, speaking to a bird … with a mask on.”

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, Bennett –– a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine –– will deliver her Class Day address virtually. Bennett is known for developing the first gene therapy ever approved by the Federal Drug Administration: Luxturna, which treats a heritable retinal disease called Leber congenital amaurosis that often results in blindness.

“I’m so humbled by this extraordinary experience,” Bennett said. “I definitely have a fondness for Yale and a connection that was based not only on [my] childhood experiences but also on being an undergraduate there and connecting with people beyond that time.”

Growing up in New Haven, Bennett said she considered the University campus to be her “backyard.” As a senior in high school, she 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.

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.

“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.”

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.

But her Class Day address will be very different from previous addresses.

The Class Day Committee –– composed of Sarah Geach ’20, Michelle Hu ’20, Ananya Indwar ’20, Nathan Isaacs ’20 and Calvin Schwartzberg ’20 –– said they have revamped Class Day, expanding the traditional one-day celebration into Class Week.

“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,” the committee wrote in an email to the News.

Bennett will wrap up Class Week celebrations with her virtual address on May 17. The entire Yale community will be able to watch her speech live or view a recording of it, according to the Class Day Committee.

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

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

Julia Brown | julia.brown@yale.edu