“You only get to see something for the first time once.”
Those were the words of caution and encouragement given by keynote speaker Mona Hanna-Attisha to this year’s graduates during the Harvard Medical School and School of Dental Medicine’s 2019 Class Day ceremony.
The physician-scientist rose to national prominence during the 2015 water pollution crisis in Flint, Michigan, after her research exposed the gravity of the health hazard stemming from the city’s lead-contaminated water supply.
“I was blind to what I didn’t know,” she told the graduates gathered on the HMS Quad. She then noted that the new graduates are blessed with a fleeting gift that must be nurtured and kept alive if they are to fully realize their potential as healers: their fresh eyes.
First impressions, Hanna-Attisha said, can reveal crucial details and connections that fade from sight when the new becomes commonplace.
Hanna-Attisha recalled advising her patients that it was fine to use the tap water in Flint; she couldn’t see how an American city in the 21st century could possibly have unsafe drinking water. That was before she learned from clinical and laboratory data that the water was dangerously contaminated with lead.
Research led by Hanna-Attisha and published in the American Journal of Public Health, subsequently documented a striking increase in lead levels in blood samples from Flint’s young children after the city decided to switch the source of the municipal water supply.
She said her research into the issue was inspired by Alice Hamilton, the first woman professor at Harvard University and a courageous pioneer in the fields of occupational medicine and environmental health who, she said, fought tenaciously for the health of her patients and the public. She added that the 2019 graduates should let Hamilton’s legacy serve as a “reminder of what our work should be about.”
“Your clarity of vision shows you the world how it should be, not the imperfect place it is.
"As you spend your upcoming years on the front lines of health, hold on to those fresh eyes," she said. "Combine them with the tools and technology of medicine to make people’s lives better. And don’t forget to take a step back and see the bigger picture.”
Injustice and malignancy are not hard to find, she noted, cataloging a list of societal inequities that contribute to ill health, including income inequality, persistent racism and anti-science ideologies.
“This world—our world—depends on the work you will do,” she said. “And this is why we need you, and this is why I’m so hopeful looking out at all of you today.”
Hanna-Attisha’s call to service was echoed by graduate speakers and school leaders in their remarks throughout the ceremony and in other ceremonies throughout the week.
In his Class Day remarks, HMS Dean George Q. Daley congratulated the graduates for their hard work and dedication, and noted the many ways in which the Class of 2019 has changed Harvard Medical School for the better, with its members founding the Racial Justice Coalition and demonstrating for science and for the rights of women and immigrants.
“You’ve made your mark on Harvard,” Daley said. “Now, it’s time for you to make your mark on the world.”
More than ever, Daley said, the world needs leaders “who can guide us with insight, wisdom and compassion.”
“I am certain that you are those leaders,” Daley said, “not by choice, not by ambition, but by the sheer power of your competence and your commitment to serving others.”
Bruce Donoff, dean of HSDM delivered what would be his final commencement remarks as dean. After 28 years at the helm of HSDM, Donoff announced in April that he will step down from the position effective Jan. 1, 2020. During his nearly three decades as leader of the school, Donoff moved HSDM forward with a broad vision for global and community oral health. He plans to transition to a role on the faculty after Jan. 1.
In his remarks, Donoff reflected on the importance of integrating dentistry with other fields of medicine, both in the classroom and in the clinic, and on the value of working steadfastly to ensure that all patients everywhere receive the best possible care.
“Be the leaders you are in transforming oral health and health care world through science, policy and compassionate care,” he said. “Most importantly, do the right thing—especially when no one is watching.”
In addition, HMS awarded 128 degrees in a variety of master’s programs. Master of Medical Science degrees were awarded to 66 students: 21 were awarded in clinical investigation, 13 in global health delivery, 20 in immunology and 12 in medical education. Nineteen students also received Master of Biomedical Informatics degrees, 33 students received Master of Bioethics degrees and 10 received a Master of Healthcare Quality and Safety, a new degree this year.
The Harvard School of Dental Medicine awarded 34 degrees in dental medicine, 19 Master in Medical Sciences degrees and eight doctoral degrees.
Graduates and their families and friends posed for photos together in front of iconic Longwood backdrops and blooming rhododendrons on the HMS Quad, as the grads toted flowers, flags and stuffed animals, gifts received from proud loved ones.
As students arrived from the morning’s activities in Harvard’s Tercentenary Theater, one graduating MD, Miranda Ravicz, wearing her academic regalia and two decorative leis, introduced her parents to Kelli O’Laughlin, an HMS assistant professor of emergency medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“Today we’re celebrating Miranda’s achievements, and her participation in that work, and we’re celebrating how lucky we were to have her on our team,” O’Laughlin said.
O’Laughlin was Ravicz’s mentor for Ravicz’s Scholars in Medicine research project, which examined the effectiveness of strategies to increase engagement in treatment among HIV-positive refugees in settlements in Uganda.
“We’re proud of everything she’s achieved, and we’re pleased to be able to meet the people who mentored and supported her, and to see it all in person,” said Tanyo Ravicz, the graduate’s father.
“And we feel lucky to have her on our team, too,” said Martina Ravicz, the graduate’s mother.
A day earlier, on May 29, HMS grad Ronit Malka, who earned her MD in the Health Sciences and Technology program, and Babeck Ebadpour, who earned a DMD from HSDM, were commissioned as captains in the U.S. Air Force. Fiorella Candamo Aparicio and Justin Roy Montenegro, who earned their DMDs, were commissioned as lieutenants in the U.S. Navy.
In special commissioning ceremonies on campus they each swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, both foreign and domestic.
Making a difference
Each year’s Class Day ceremony is steeped in tradition, but this year’s speeches were full of calls for innovation, creativity and progress in efforts to improve human health and ameliorate suffering caused by disease.
HSDM graduate speaker Thomas Ferlito discussed the difference between caring for patients and caring about them, exhorting his fellow graduates to dare to be the doctors and dentists that they want to be, to “be the brave ones who turn our ideas into action, who speak our visions into truth. Brave ones who care with a backbone, who stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.”
HMS graduate speaker Robert Weatherford said that all the grads owed a debt of gratitude to their patients for the lessons they taught the students about the potential that doctors have to make a difference in some of the most important moments of a person’s life. He also noted the gratitude the students owed their parents for supporting them on their journey to graduation.
"Classmates, among the many things that today represents, one of them is certainly the expiry date on any of our excuses for accepting the world’s problems as they are,” he said. “The world’s many ills cry out for solutions, and who else should use the gift of this education to help solve them?”
The speakers shared a sense that the graduates were among the best suited to address the systemic problems in health care and the injustices in society that contribute to health inequity, not only because they are highly educated and hardworking, but because they are deeply compassionate for their patients and for all those around them.
“Despite the uncertainties and the challenges we will face, today I am hopeful,” said HMS graduate speaker Mubeen Shakir. “I am hopeful because I know all of you. I am hopeful because, on our diverse paths, if we continue striving for compassion and striving for kindness in our work, both for the people we know and those we don’t see, together we can make this world a better place for those around us.”
Since the time of Hippocrates, more than 2,000 years ago, medical practitioners have taken an oath to uphold the principles of the vocation to which they dedicate themselves. At Harvard, every incoming class of medical and dental students writes its own oath, drawing upon tradition and upon values shared with classmates.
This years’ graduates highlighted the importance of discovery, healing, respect, collaboration and lifelong learning as they pledged to join a long tradition of curiosity and compassion embodied in the professions of medicine and dentistry.