"The passage of time, just like the resources on Earth, feels more precious with expanded perspective."
— Glen de Vries, October 2021
Carnegie Mellon University alumnus and Trustee Glen de Vries had a philosophical bent to his voice just days after achieving his lifelong dream of traveling to space. His flight aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard Spacecraft on Oct. 13, 2021, had inspired what he intended to be the focus of the next phase of a life that seemed limitless: democratizing space so that a broader cross section of humanity could experience it.
"I honestly don't think anybody could go to space and not want to go to space more, so I would love to again," he shared with the CMU community(opens in new window) days after his return. "I had the privilege of being able to afford to do this, and to have the time to do this. But this is something which is about equity and access. ... Now I'm going to focus trying to use my experience to enable and inspire as many people as possible to be able to share that perspective."
Tragically, less than a month later, de Vries died in a plane crash, cutting short a life that had achieved so much, but was poised to accomplish even more.
On Friday, Oct. 28, 2022, almost a year after his death, family, friends and members of the CMU community gathered on campus to commemorate de Vries' life. Among the speakers at the Celebration of Life were CMU President Farnam Jahanian; Chair of the CMU Board of Trustees David Coulter; Rebecca Doerge, the Glen de Vries Dean of the Mellon College of Science; Vice President for University Advancement Scott Mory; Jonathan Jarvik, an associate professor of biological sciences who had remained close with his former student; CMU Trustee Tamara Tunie; de Vries' father, Alan de Vries; and his mother, Madeline Hooper.
"To be in Glen's presence was to be immersed in his exuberance and his zest for life," Jahanian said. "We all developed a deep affection for Glen over the years, and a profound admiration for his passion for dreaming big, as well as his commitment to live those bold ambitions every day. Glen's influence on CMU, on scientific discovery and on the entire world, cannot be overstated. He has left a void that will be nearly impossible to fill."
As the speakers shared, the impact of de Vries' life continues to be felt. His vision for the digital transformation of life sciences research changed an entire industry, for the betterment of humanity and the planet. The company he co-founded in 1999, Medidata Solutions, has helped to advance more than 27,000 life sciences clinical trials. To date, more than 500 COVID-19 research studies have been completed using its data management platform, and the company's technology supported the research behind 64% of new pharmaceuticals approved by the Food and Drug Administration last year.
"It was in Glen's interest to want to make people's lives better," said Hooper. "In the case of Medidata, he helped save millions of lives all over the world. It is the power of a dream really coming true."
At Carnegie Mellon, his impact has been extraordinary. He was elected to the university's Board of Trustees in 2018, was a member of the Mellon College of Science Dean's Council and previously served on the President's Global Advisory Council. In 2017, the university bestowed its Alumni Achievement Award on him in recognition of his global significance, and in 2021, he was named chair of CMU's Make Possible campaign. In addition to his formal roles, de Vries spoke at and hosted numerous events, and was a mentor to students in the Mellon College of Science and the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship.
"Glen was just beginning to have the impact that he was meant to have at Carnegie Mellon as a member of the Board of Trustees," Coulter said. "He was a force at our meetings, and was hard to miss in terms of his energy, optimism and enthusiasm. He truly embraced being a Tartan for life."
De Vries also wholeheartedly lent his support and advocacy to CMU's future of science initiative, a decadelong initiative to revolutionize scientific discovery and education, with the goal of accelerating the transformation of research and leading to groundbreaking innovations to benefit humankind. In 2017, he made a $10 million gift to endow the deanship of the Mellon College of Science(opens in new window), in turn becoming a close adviser and friend to the inaugural chairholder, Dean Rebecca Doerge.
"Whatever he did, he approached it with joy. Glen made a lot of other people's dreams come true," Doerge said. "Whether it was through supporting CMU's vision for the university as a trustee, the Mellon College of Science's vision, or students' research, he helped so many of us achieve our loftiest goals. He believed when a lot of other people didn't."
De Vries' generosity to CMU and its students also included an endowed graduate fellowship, a gift to the university's health and wellness initiative, and support for the student emergency fund during COVID-19. But his philanthropic legacy is not yet complete. During the Celebration of Life, Hooper announced that he had provided CMU with a $10 million bequest as part of his estate. The gift will be memorialized with a space in the new Richard King Mellon Hall of Sciences(opens in new window), a project for which de Vries was one of the university's most ardent champions.
"It gave him so much pleasure to be deeply involved in CMU," Hooper said. "It was great that he was successful and could donate money, but the real thing was being among you ... it was life-changing for Glen."
In 2017, de Vries spoke wistfully of his connection to his alma mater. "CMU had a profound effect on me, personally and professionally."
For those assembled for his Celebration of Life, and for so many others who called him a friend or colleague, it is the profound effect of Glen de Vries, in return, that will continue to be his legacy.