Top hats & swords: Chiu receives prestigious award at unique ceremony

Donning a top hat and coat for the ceremony
Donning a top hat and coat for the ceremony

With top hat and sword in hand, Dr. Wah Chiu, the Alvin Romansky Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Baylor College of Medicine, marched through the streets of Finland last month, following the more than 300-year-old tradition of degree conferment carried out by the University of Helsinki.

Chiu, who is also professor of molecular and cellular biology, molecular physiology and biophysics, and molecular virology and microbiology, was among 15 recipients of honorary degrees from the University.

Chiu’s work recognized

He was chosen for the doctorate degree in philosophy as recognition for his work toward the development of the high resolution methodology for electron cryo-microscopy and computational methods to solve 3-dimensional structures of macromolecular machines.

The biological applications of this methodology include viruses, channels, membranes, oligomeric proteins, protein folding machines, and cyotskeletal protein complexes. The structures of these complexes are revealing new insights into their functions in human health and disease.

The University of Helsinki is one of the world’s leading research-intensive universities and an honorary degree is one of its highest honors. 

Having never visited the University of Helsinki, I am incredibly humbled to have been the recipient of an honorary degree from this institution. It is an honor to receive such a recognition in another country for my work,” Chiu said.

The ceremony

The University’s conferment ceremony in Finland is unlike any here in the United States. It dates back to 1643 in the city of Turku and was moved to the new capital of Helsinki, along with the University, in 1828. However, it wasn’t until the 1840s that honorary degrees were awarded.

Graduates and honorary degree awardees take part in a solemn ceremony where each conferee receives a hat and sword as symbols of strength, power, intellectual freedom and responsibility. It is considered a festive event for all to share, and tradition has kept that alive; after the ceremony they march through the streets in their regalia greeted by the community.

“The University’s conferment ceremony takes place once every four years. It was an awesome experience to share this special celebration with hundreds of proud doctoral and master graduates. The formal and lengthy ceremony captured the heart of the Finnish community’s respect, support and admiration for an individual’s academic achievements,” Chiu said. “The ceremony was surrounded by three days of festivity complete with highly organized social events, great food and wine. It was truly a remarkable and memorable time.”

A multi-day event

The three-day-long event starts with a rehearsal and a celebration honoring the official garland weaver, and garlands are given to those receiving their doctorate degrees. Day two is the solemn ceremony held in the Great Hall of the University followed by a service in the cathedral and a gala dinner. Day three is left for “merry-making,” which can include excursions off the coast, a ball in the evening and even rising early to loudly greet and salute the sun.

The impressive ceremony is recognized as a major academic event, visible in the streets of Helsinki for days.

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