School of Medicine class of 2023 exhales, celebrates, receives ambitious marching orders

Speakers, including Nobel Prize winner Carolyn Bertozzi and dean Lloyd Minor, reflect on how the group came together post-pandemic and refocused on what makes Stanford Medicine unique.

- By Mark Conley

Students make their way to the stage for the June 17, 2023, graduation ceremony.
Steve Fisch

The inspirational references ran an eclectic gamut, from real-world icons Maya Angelou and Anthony Fauci to TV characters Ted Lasso and Walter White. The talking points ranged from leaning into equitable patient care to fighting against a “pandemic of mistrust” that challenges core scientific tenets.

But from all who spoke at the June 17 graduation ceremony at the Stanford School of Medicine emerged a common theme. Before a loud, energetic crowd of friends and family who had gathered on a sunny, 80-degree day outside the Li Ka Shing Center — and to those watching via livestream around the globe — the student and faculty leaders touched on a universal set of alliterative guideposts.

Curiosity. Collaboration. Community. Courage.

Those principles have never mattered more in the study of science, medicine and health care, they maintained. And each of those values seem to be uniquely fostered by the culture at Stanford Medicine, they said.

“This is the place that stands alone as a world-class super power in interdisciplinary science,” keynote speaker and recent Nobel laureate Carolyn Bertozzi, PhD, told the graduates who earned a collective 349 MD, PhD and master’s degrees. “I hope your experiences in this ecosystem have been as inspiring and transformative for you as they have been for me.”

The Baker Family Director of Sarafan ChEM-H, who invented a scientific cross-section of biology and chemistry called bioorthogonal chemistry, Bertozzi looked at the class  — full of medical doctors, physician assistants, health care innovators and research scientists — and told them what else inspired her: them.

Carolyn Bertozzi delivers the keynote speech at graduation as Lloyd Minor and other faculty look on.
Steve Fisch

“Medical school and graduate school are steep mountains to climb at any time, but this particular class had to do it against the headwinds of a global pandemic, the worst health crisis in a century,” she said. “You arrived at Stanford Medicine ready to dedicate your lives to improving human health through science and patient care. But you could not have foreseen how quickly you would be thrust onto the front line of both of those pursuits.” 

Pandemic life and community

The School of Medicine dean, Lloyd Minor, MD, acknowledged in his opening remarks that most students in this graduating class began the journey amid COVID-19 lockdowns and Zoom-powered learning, and had to constantly adapt to sudden change — meaning that even getting back to normalcy required discipline.

“In this last year and a half, we all had to relearn how to live and work together. We were reminded what it was like to share a campus — to share community,” he said. “And we were reminded just how much we all needed that, and how much we will need it going forward.”

Community was Minor’s dominant theme. He relied on the iconic words of the poet and civil rights activist Angelou to emphasize the importance of authentic connection: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Which, according to newly minted MD Gaby Joseph, who returned from his residency in New York to receive his diploma and give his speech, is where Apple TV character Ted Lasso, the guileless football coach turned soccer coach, comes into play — as the teller of stories that pull a community together.

“He’s radically selfless; puts others before himself; and champions a team culture of safety, inclusivity and excellence,” Joseph said. “In millions of little ways, where he elevates the lowest … to a position of authority or steps up and speaks for those in need of a voice, Ted writes little stories that move the needle in his orbit toward justice.”

‘Pixelated boxes on a computer screen’

Celine Hakimianpour, representing the master’s in physician assistant studies graduates, spoke of the quixotic adventure that was pandemic-era medical school, of “beginning this journey on the small pixelated boxes of a computer screen” yet ending in a place where you gained the “strength and conviction of holding your patient’s hand.”

Master’s of science speaker Honor Magnon, who plans to use her informatics degree to  shape medicine through technology, and Irene Li, the PhD representative pushing the limits of cancer therapy with computational biology, echoed the importance of the curiosity that draws special people down important rabbit holes.

Dan Bernstein drapes the cowl over newly minted physician Gaby Joseph.
Steve Fisch

“At its purest form, science is the process of devoting energy to satisfying curiosity, and I hope we each remember our ‘why’ behind that devotion,” Li said. “We have used our energy to reason, observe, experience and deduce, and today is our day to appreciate the immensity of what we’ve built and contributed to science.”

‘He saved so many lives’

In sympathizing with the politicized medical environment this year’s graduates enter into post-COVID, Bertozzi harkened back to the first crisis-level challenge Fauci faced head on: the HIV/AIDS crisis of the ’90s.

In the face of immense criticism, Fauci, then in his mid-40s, collaborated with patient advocates to speed up therapies. “He saved so many lives,” she said, by finding ways “to get patients access to experimental medicines that were not yet FDA approved.” 

“When I think about Tony Fauci walking through fire alongside his patients, I am reminded that one person can make a difference,” she said, “especially a doctor who prioritizes their patients and remains true to their principles, even when they are unpopular.”

And when Bertozzi thinks about what makes up the core organic chemistry popular, she inevitably ends up referencing Walter White, the now-infamous character from the Netflix series Breaking Bad.

What could the high school science teacher who learned how to augment his income by making high-grade methamphetamine teach the next generation of doctors and scientists?

“Walter White saw chemistry as the study of change,” Bertozzi said. “Just as in a chemical transformation, you may have an idea of what products will form. But there are always surprises. Sometimes the unexpected products are the most interesting, so make sure you analyze them all!”

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

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