Thoughts from the Dean

HMS Grads to Shape the Future

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May 24, 2012
HMS Grads to Shape the Future

2012 Class Day remarks by Jeffrey S. Flier, MD - Dean of the Harvard University Faculty of Medicine

Members of the class of 2012, families and friends, distinguished Medical and Dental School faculty, honored guests.

In a few short minutes we’ll launch your careers-- in medicine and in dentistry, in patient care, in biomedical research, in policy and, ultimately, in a wide variety of leadership roles, both here in the U.S. and around the world.

Today you have great cause to celebrate, to be optimistic, to hold your hopes high. Yes, society today is beset with substantial fiscal and social challenges that are as yet unmet. But medicine and biomedical research remain core values in our society, and important national priorities.

Your careers are blossoming during a tremendously exciting era for medicine practice, for biomedical science and for public policy related to health.

In this country, we are still in the early stages of long overdue and necessary reform of our excessively expensive and underperforming health care system. Many critical details of how this reform will unfold remain unclear, awaiting Supreme Court decisions, and resolution of legislative gridlock, and many aspects are quite contentious. But whatever form this reform ultimately takes, the future practice of medicine will surely differ greatly from that which you have thus far experienced. I take great solace in the belief that some of you will play critical roles in shaping that future.

You, the class of 2012, have reason to be hopeful for all the world’s future, not just your own. We are on the cusp of an era when researchers will have the knowledge and technologies to devise rationally designed disease-prevention strategies—including public health interventions, changes in nutrition and exercise, and new medications including vaccines -- which will potentially benefit millions of people worldwide.  Sometimes these preventive strategies will fail, and when they do, we will benefit from many new custom-tailored treatments for individual patients based on genetics and biomarkers that will increase the efficacy of medications and reduce their toxicity.

In Boston today, a patient with devastating injuries can be given a new chance at life by our Faculty through facial transplantation. But before too long, we will be able to go much further than that.  Using rapidly evolving technology fueled by basic science, we can already regenerate many cell types and tissues, in many cases derived from a skin cell grown from a patient; given rapidly evolving advances in stem cell science, the impact of regenerative medicine on the future of human health is likely to be profound.

We are also working hard to transcribe and edit “molecular conversations” within and between cells with the goal of more completely understanding them, increasingly using the new science of systems biology, and advanced imaging techniques.  Ultimately, our goal is to interrupt the course of cancer, diabetes and many other diseases that are now too often refractory to therapy.

In your lifetime, I expect you will have the tools and knowledge to expand the human “healthspan” — that is, the total number of years we enjoy good health, not just life.

Class of 2012, yours is a time of exhilarating change that is vast in scope: Today, all health is global. You will, I am certain, have the opportunity to ease human suffering to a degree that is wholly unprecedented.

Pathogens know no borders, and the threat of drug-resistant disease continues to loom large. However, as you confront future epidemics, you will be far more able to communicate and collaborate in an instant with experts all around the world. Your generation is intensely interconnected, and you share a keen awareness of the need for quality health care in every corner of the world.

On this shrinking planet, your reach as caregivers and health policy shapers will know no boundaries.

I hope that you will use the modern tools of medicine to wondrous ends. Remember that despite the many woes of this world, your lives are brimming with opportunity.

You will help determine the future of human health. Embrace this privilege. You are equal to it.

When you arrived at HMS, some of you had a very detailed plan in mind; and many of you remain precisely on the path you envisioned for yourself four or five years ago. Others of you discovered completely unanticipated paths along the way. Wherever you lie on that spectrum, you will likely encounter unexpected opportunities and forks in the road ahead.

But no matter how often you deviate from your initial plans and no matter how often the world shifts around you, I implore you to stay true to your ideals. Above all, I wish that you take the opportunity to touch your fellow human beings—and to experience the profound fulfillment that comes with being a physician.

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