Astronaut, engineer, surgeon 2020 Class Day speaker

HMS alumnus Robert Satcher Jr.’s career involves a love of exploration 

Satcher speaking at Spotlight on Med Ed

Satcher at the Spotlight on Medical Education dinner in 2019. Image: Gretchen Ertl

Robert Satcher Jr., an alumnus of the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology and a NASA astronaut, will be this year’s Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Dental Medicine Class Day keynote speaker on May 28.

Harvard Commencement and HMS Class Day ceremonies will be held virtually this year to ensure the health and safety of the university and Quad communities during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are committed to making [the ceremonies] special and memorable for our graduates and their loved ones,” said HMS Dean George Q. Daley.

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“Dr. Satcher is a dynamic role model to so many of us and embodies exactly what leadership is all about,” said Fidencio Saldaña, HMS dean for students. “We know that students, faculty and staff alike will be proud, encouraged, uplifted and inspired by hearing from Dr. Satcher, while his words will help send the graduates into the world of medicine with strength and poise for the challenges ahead.”

Satcher, MD ’94, the first orthopedic surgeon to travel in space, journeyed to the International Space Station on space shuttle Atlantis, took two space walks, repaired ISS equipment and served as the crew’s medical doctor during an 11-day mission in 2009.

"This year’s graduation is notable because it is the first to be held virtually and because the future is more uncertain than most are accustomed to," said Satcher. "There has never been a more obvious need for our profession. Not only in caring for those afflicted from coronavirus but also in providing leadership in how to best strategize to manage health care as we move forward."

Satcher is now an associate professor of orthopaedic oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, specializing in the treatment of skeletal metastatic disease, soft tissue sarcoma technology applications for improved surgical outcomes, teleoncology and intraoperative navigation. He is working on building a cancer center in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Here in Boston is where I got my love of discovery and exploration,” he said last October at the School’s Spotlight on Medical Education event, adding that he struggled at first with whether he should even attend medical school.

Fortunately, he said, “HST discovered me.” Following the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003, Satcher said he decided to apply to the U.S. shuttle program and was surprised to get a call sometime later asking if he was still interested. He joined the NASA class of 2004.

Born in Hampton, Virginia, Satcher graduated from high school in Denmark, South Carolina. He received a BS in chemical engineering in 1986 and a PhD in chemical engineering in 1993 from MIT. He completed postdoctoral research fellowships at MIT and the University of California, Berkeley; an internship and residency in orthopedic surgery at the University of California, San Francisco, and a fellowship in musculoskeletal oncology at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

He has served on the faculty of the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and Children’s Memorial Hospital. Satcher co-founded the eHealth Research Institute, which brings together physicians and academic and industry researchers to improve access to specialized health care using the latest in research and technology.

School officials have said that an in-person Class Day ceremony may be scheduled when COVID-19 restrictions are eased and it’s safe for people to come together again.

Read profiles of graduating students and get details on graduation here.