Students Hear from Roy Vagelos, First-Generation College Student

April 18, 2022
VP&S Class of 2025 members with Roy Vagelos'54

First-year students at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (VP&S) had an opportunity last week to meet with Roy Vagelos, MD, the 1954 VP&S graduate for whom the school is named. Vagelos is the retired CEO of pharmaceutical giant Merck. He is currently chairman of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. VP&S Dean Katrina Armstrong, MD, gave remarks to welcome the students and Vagelos.

The dinner and meeting in the Vagelos Education Center was hosted by the First-Generation and Low-Income Partnership (FLIP) and the VP&S Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. FLIP is a student group that aims to build community among first-generation and low-income students, residents, and attendings.

Roy Vagelos'54 and Katrina Armstrong with VP&S students

The VP&S Class of 2025 heard from Vagelos—himself a first-generation college student—about his journey through medical school and his career. Vagelos was introduced by Annel Fernandez’22, the co-founder of FLIP at VP&S, who described the life-changing support she received through the scholarship program that Vagelos, his wife, Diana, and other donors funded.

Vagelos shared the story about his Greek immigrant background and working in his family’s small restaurant, which included serving scientists who worked at Merck, before later returning to New Jersey to head the Merck research laboratories and eventually becoming CEO, president, and chair. At Merck, he helped bring modern biochemistry into the pharmaceutical industry by targeting specific molecules. Examples include the development of statins, which revolutionized the treatment of cardiovascular disease, and ivermectin, for river blindness.

Kimberly Sanchez, a first-year student and academic chair for FLIP, moderated the question-and-answer period. Students asked for advice from Vagelos on how to shape their careers. “Do what you love to do, and it will never feel like work,” he answered. The knowledge and skills the students are getting at Columbia, he predicted, will enable them to accomplish even more than he accomplished.

Armstrong, the first in her family to become a doctor, thanked Vagelos for his transformative support of the medical school. She reminded the students that the career path taken by Vagelos is a model of how the pursuit of fundamental knowledge about human biology can lead to changes in medicine, industry, and global health. “There is no one who stands as tall in American medicine as Roy Vagelos.” 


The First-Generation and Low-Income Partnership, which has about 70 members, is sponsored by the VP&S Club and the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. FLIP facilitates workshops, social events, panel discussions, and mentorship opportunities to address issues faced by first-generation and low-income students.

In addition to providing opportunities for FLI students to be together, FLIP is piloting a mentoring program and has built a database of FLI-identifying faculty who are available to mentor. Students are matched with faculty mentors based on shared interests, backgrounds, or specialties.

Read more about FLIP in Columbia Medicine magazine.