Agents of Health and Hope

HMS master’s, MD-PhD programs celebrate 2020 graduations

Screen shot of Zoom call master's graduation

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Harvard University and Harvard Medical School held virtual graduation ceremonies this year to ensure the health and safety of the Harvard communities. In-person celebrations will take place at a later date.

For the more than 100 Harvard Medical School master’s and MD-PhD students this year, the global coronavirus pandemic did not get in the way of their formal passage into a changing world of medicine and biomedical research.

It's a world that, perhaps now more than ever, will need their intellect and dedication, master's students were told during their online graduation ceremony on May 28.

Read more about HMS/HSDM Commencement and Class Day

“For thousands of years, humanity has been plagued by outbreaks that ravaged societies, like today’s pandemic. Smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella and others stayed with us for centuries until scientists and medical professionals persevered and found cures and treatments to make our world healthier and safer,” said keynote speaker Laurie Glimcher, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute president and CEO, HMS alumna, and the Richard and Susan Smith Professor of Medicine at HMS.

“This is now your time,” she added. “You are being called to do your part to be agents of health and use the power of science, combined with your own curiosity, talent and training to solve the problems that plague humanity today, from Alzheimer’s to heart disease to cancer and more. And yes, to rid the world of the novel coronavirus and prevent the next epidemic.” 

The 126 master’s graduates were told that their skills will be needed as they enter hospitals and labs. By being agents of health, Glimcher said, they will also be agents of hope for humanity, adding that “people all over the world are putting their hope and faith in science like never before.”

“Yes, the challenges we’ve faced for the last several months are unprecedented,” Glimcher said. “But when you are tested, you must respond by harnessing all of your determination, creativity and innovation—and those special traits of hard work, dedication and commitment—to continue making progress for all the patients and their loved ones who are counting on you.”

The master’s graduates received degrees from eight HMS master’s programs: bioethics, biomedical informatics, clinical investigation, global health delivery, health care quality and safety, immunology and medical education as well as the School’s first master’s degrees in clinical service operations.  The grads hailed from every continent except Antarctica, said HMS Dean George Q. Daley, in his congratulatory remarks.

Laurie Glimcher
Laurie Glimcher

“We’ve all had to rapidly adapt to a new normal, and that has not been easy,” Daley said. “Many of you have had to endure even longer separations from your families than you had planned.  Many of you have confronted unexpected health care burdens from the COVID-19 pandemic, both in your own lives and in your service in medical, scientific, policy and related spheres.

The current health crisis has impacted every one of us, and yet you persevered.”

But, Daley added, “Although the pandemic adds a bittersweet tinge to what should be a joyous occasion, I will say this to you as solace: If you can get through this, you can get through anything.”

Dean for Graduate Education Rosalind Segal told the graduates, many of whom already hold advanced degrees or work as practicing physicians or health care professionals, that all of the HMS master’s degree programs share a goal of further training future leaders who can advance the world’s understanding of disease and improve care for patients everywhere.

“This pandemic this year highlights why this goal is so critical,” Segal said. “The graduates of each program are well prepared to deal with repercussions of the new coronavirus—whether it is the immunologists deciphering the immune response to SARS-COV-2, the biomedical informaticians who can rapidly identify the novel sequences and determine which have been infected by virus, the clinical investigators who can test new therapies, or the leaders in clinical service operations who can rearrange clinical care to deal with a crisis,” she said.

MD-PhD graduation

In a separate online ceremony on May 26, the 18 graduates of the School’s MD-PhD program gathered with faculty and loved ones to celebrate what for some has been a five-to-nine-year academic journey.

Their celebration opened with a video montage featuring candid photos of the grads—six women and 12 men—through their years at HMS and MIT, at poster sessions, picnics, retreats, beach outings and on the HMS Quad. Dean Daley, himself an MD-PhD graduate, toasted their achievement and told them “you will be the ambassadors of the best that HMS has to offer.”

Loren Walensky, director of the Harvard/MIT MD-PhD program and an HMS professor of pediatrics, served as master of ceremonies, telling the grads that earning their dual degrees has prepared them well for the many different kinds of careers they will be pursuing, adding that the coronavirus pandemic has made them soldiers on the frontlines, running toward the fire.

“COVID-19 is the crisis that came without a fire drill, but you are uniquely ready to make a difference,” he said. “In the hospitals, in the laboratory, in the public health sector or in the government.”

He told them that their graduation would be more memorable than most due to a “once in a hundred years global pandemic,” and that upon graduation they will no longer be students and everything will change. From now on, he said, they will be responsible for the medical judgments and decisions they make.

"Did the intervention you made that day help the patient? Did it neither help nor hurt? Was your decision wrong or even harmful?  These are the questions that come with being ultimately responsible for the well-being of another human being.  You will now have influence over the healing process – and as much of an enormous responsibility as it is, the more responsibility you take on, the more deeply fulfilling your doctoring will be," he said. 

He told those who will be pursuing research that they will assume responsibility for creating solutions in the lab that will improve human health.

Screen shot of MD-PhD grads

“I promise you that there will always be an army of people sitting there, waiting to tell you that your idea stinks and that your plan isn’t doable,” he said. “Part of assuming the responsibilities you assume today is to harness the confidence and the fortitude to stay focused on what you believe in. This is not a 100-meter dash. It’s a marathon. So, you have to stay laser-focused on what you believe in, so that you, yourself, can go the distance.”

Three student speakers, David Cox, Amy Li and Sana Raoof, addressed their classmates to discuss what their years in the program have meant to them, recalling how awestruck they were by the talent and intellect of their classmates.

“In this program, excellence is the standard, not the exception,” said Cox, who spoke lovingly of his mentor, Feng Zhang, an accomplished CRISPR scientist “who believed in me.”

Li, the new mother of a six-month-old, thanked her parents for helping her get to the finish line to earn her degree.  She said she “learned the most from the many shots that I missed,” and she said her classmates were the best part of her nine-year journey.

“We felt each other’s losses and we also celebrated together,” Li said.

Raoof also thanked faculty and leadership, and she also recognized her classmates.

"I thank the graduates of the MD-PhD program. We have all, in some ways, provided great inspiration for each other. We helped each other writing our F30s, helped each other get fellowships, warned each other about weird things happening on the wards, and also created memories together year after year," she said. "We have all taken slightly different paths, but I hope we all got to the same place by the end — to be proud of ourselves and excited for the next chapter."

Master's stats

The HMS master’s program has grown rapidly, and Segal said 110 students will continue with their training this year while 184 new students will begin their programs in the fall. This year’s graduates specialized in the following areas:

  • Bioethics (33)
  • Biomedical Informatics (22)
  • Clinical Investigation (22)
  • Global Health Delivery (13)
  • Immunology (13)
  • Clinical Service Operations (12)
  • Medical Education (8)
  • Health Care Quality and Safety (3)