Speakers stress importance of science, empathy at med school’s 110th commencement
“Aim high and keep learning, be skeptical of accepted certainty and stay fast in the belief that facts matter,” Nobel laureate Paul Berg told Stanford School of Medicine graduates.
Exploration of the unknown and the thrill of discovery are “exhilarating experiences” for those who dedicate their lives to the professions of science and health, Nobel laureate Paul Berg, PhD, told Stanford School of Medicine graduates on June 16.
“Such experiences are rare, personally rewarding and not always recognized by prominent prizes,” Berg said.
A professor emeritus of biochemistry at Stanford, Berg spoke at the medical school’s 110th diploma ceremony, which was held on campus at Sand Hill Fields beneath the shade of a large white tent. Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, fellow faculty members and graduating students — candidates for medical degrees and graduate degrees in the biomedical sciences — were seated behind him on a stage decorated with ferns and cardinal red Stanford Medicine banners. In the audience, family members, guests and classmates of the students numbered in the hundreds. The weather was mild, with temperatures in the low 70s. A light breeze drifted through the tent.
Berg, 91, the Robert W. and Vivian K. Cahill Professor of Cancer Research, Emeritus, affirmed the “scientific core of medicine,” noting that breakthrough discoveries can be made both in the lab and at the bedside. “Physicians, by their encounters with and proximity to patients displaying a range of pathologies, are often the first to identify novel and disruptive aspects of human biology,” he said. “Indeed, physicians have initiated some of the most significant discoveries that changed the course of medical thinking and progress.”
But the challenge for those who practice medicine has unique demands, said Berg, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1980 for creating the first recombinant DNA. It is “not for the faint-hearted, for it will engage every ounce of your powers of patience, understanding and empathy.” He emphasized the indispensable role of investigation, and charged the graduates to “aim high and keep learning, be skeptical of accepted certainty and stay fast in the belief that facts matter.”
‘Inspire others by your passion’
In his remarks to the graduates, faculty and guests, Minor also underscored the importance of science, especially in a world with “a growing distrust of science as a source of truth.” Commending an example from Berg’s career — the historic Asilomar conference that Berg convened to work through questions of safety raised by his work in genetic engineering — Minor said, “We must not shy away from the public debate; indeed, it is incumbent on us to begin the conversation.”
Minor encouraged the students to be passionate advocates for science. “As Stanford Medicine graduates, you have a unique understanding of the transformative benefits of discovery,” he said. “So, today, as we send you off to change the world, I’d like to ask you to help me share those life-changing benefits — to be a spokesperson, advocate and defender of science.” He encouraged graduates to “inspire others by your passion for your work,” and “let your enthusiasm and pride be infectious.”
“Imagine the Stanford Medicine classes of 2038 and 2048,” Minor said, “full of today’s youngsters inspired by your example and a world celebrating how the science of tomorrow has overcome the greatest challenges of today.”
Learn to fail well
Graduate Opher Kornfeld, who earned a PhD in chemical and systems biology at the ceremony, spoke candidly, and at times humorously, about the value of learning how to fail. His first notable failure, he said, came in a middle school spelling bee after recently immigrating to the United States. An ambitious scientist, he added, must learn to fail well.
“The living systems we study are complex and unpredictable, our hypotheses are daring,” Kornfeld said. Rebounding from disappointment is a skill the best scientists must hone. “Dean Minor, the individuals sitting behind me are some of the best failers I know.”
Solidarity with her classmates and embracing the novel experiences of medicine were the themes of remarks delivered by graduating medical student Charlotte Rajasingh, who will stay on at Stanford as a resident in general surgery.
“I hope that by remembering the complex feelings of novelty we became so familiar with as medical students we will be better caregivers for our patients, better team members for those who look up to us and better leaders as that feeling of newness is encountered down the road,” Rajasingh said. “Lean into the feeling of novelty; it’s where all great things start.”
Graduates and newlyweds
Among the capped and gowned students seated in alphabetical order to receive their diplomas, Akhilesh Pathipati, fromSacramento, California, and Mythili Pathipati, from Ames, Iowa, were side by side. Newlyweds since April, they now share the same last name, and so stepped forward in succession to have MD “hoods” draped over their shoulders before walking across the stage to receive their diplomas. The couple will be moving to Massachusetts to begin medical residencies in ophthalmology and internal medicine, respectively, at Harvard, where they first met as undergraduates.
During the presentation of diplomas, cheers, hollers and even a few ululations arose from the crowd. A total of 248 students met their graduation requirements over the course of the last academic year, earning 77 MD degrees, 88 MS degrees and 90 PhDs. (In some cases, students earned more than one degree, such as an MD and PhD.) Of those students, 166 participated in the ceremony.
Lila Hope, PhD, JD, president of the Stanford Medicine Alumni Association, welcomed the new graduates. “You may be leaving the Farm today, but the Farm will never leave you,” She said. She was followed by Sughra Ahmed, associate dean for religious life, who gave a closing benediction. “May your deeds and words be a force for good and healing,” Ahmed said.
“Finally!” said Mariko Bennet, who was excited to earn her MD and PhD degrees after a full 10 years of study and research at the school. Bennet celebrated with her husband, Christopher Bennett, MD, a School of Medicine alumnus who completed his residency in psychiatry at Stanford, and other members of their family, friends and classmates.
Mariko Bennett had conducted her research in the lab of the late Ben Barres, MD, PhD, on the function of microglia, “the resident immune cells of the brain,” as she called them. “It’s been a tough few years and, with Ben dying this year, it sometimes felt really hard to think about moving on,” she said. “But we did.” Bennett and her husband will be moving to Pennsylvania, where she’ll begin her residency in pediatric neurology on June 21 at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She’ll also continue her research.
Mark Freeman, who earned a master's degree in community health and prevention research, celebrated with his family and best friend, Alexander Ekwueme. “I’m so happy for him. And I’m motivated by him to work harder, since I’m trying to get into med school myself,” Ekwueme said. “We’re going to eat, and then tonight’s shenanigans are gonna happen.”
The Teasley family had arrived June 15 from Inglewood, California, to celebrate the graduation of Eric Teasley, who earned an MD. “I feel overwhelmed. I don’t even know. Fantastic,” said Teasley, who also earned a master’s degree and has been working on a PhD in bioengineering. “I feel very loved today. It’s been a long road.”
Teasley was encircled by his parents, Sireric and Janyce Teasley, his brother Myles, cousin and godmother Margaret Pasley, and family friends Aaron Greenspan, Kevin and Susan Atkins, and Joyce Boykin, MD. Their next stop was a dinner at Pampas in Palo Alto.
The breeze picked up, and the tent slowly cleared. Graduates left in cars or on foot, heading to celebrations and then into the next phase of their lives.
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