Dean's Corner: Preparing to Lead and Serve

 It is an honor to address you here today in my first commencement as dean.

I am unknown to many of the current graduates. For you, the true dean of Harvard Medical School is Dean Jeff Flier, who served brilliantly for the last nine years. I want to just take this moment to acknowledge Jeff and all of his fabulous service to Harvard Medical School. I believe you also got to meet and interact with Barbara McNeil, who also served brilliantly as acting dean. Thank you, Barbara. 

Now, good afternoon to this outstanding Class of 2017! 

A warm welcome to your families, friends, loved ones—those here on the Quad and the many others who are joining us through livestreaming. Let me recognize my esteemed faculty colleagues and my fantastic team of deans and administrators, as we gather together to celebrate your remarkable achievements on this marvelous day.  

Graduates, just about now your parents and friends are asking themselves, “Who is this speaker, and why am I not in Harvard Yard listening to Mark Zuckerberg? In fact, I imagine many of you are on Facebook right now listening to the livestream of his address.

I don’t blame you. 

Twenty-six years ago, I was sitting under this tent as a new graduate of the class of 1991. The HMS commencement speaker was Dr. Jonas Salk, the legendary physician who developed the world’s first polio vaccine and saved humanity from a great scourge.

Exciting, right? Well, actually, no. Indeed, Dr. Salk was a towering figure who changed the course of history, but as I recall, he was not a scintillating speaker.

So, who am I? I am the new dean of Harvard Medical School, and in fact this is my first rodeo. I have not saved humanity from a great scourge. However, I share your background, and my story is remarkably similar to many of yours. Thus, I’m hopeful that the personal reflections I will share regarding the purpose of medical education—yours and mine—will resonate with you in the years to come.

Since becoming dean, I’ve been asked frequently: “Did you always want to be a doctor?” The answer is no. My grandfather was a physician, and as I was growing up, my family showed great reverence for doctors. But when I was in middle school and high school and throughout much of college, I didn’t see my future in medicine.

Did I have any inkling where my path would lead?  No.  But what I did have were goals, ideals, and values that served me well. 

I grew up in Catskill, a small town of 4,500 people in upstate New York, and at Catskill High School I was inspired by outstanding teachers, especially in science and English. I was thrilled when I was accepted into Harvard College and given a National Scholarship, which allowed me to attend. I imagined I might someday become a scholar, but I wasn’t sure in what field. 

No career path is ever straight. My first exposure to research came in a freshman seminar on spiders. I terrorized my roommates by conducting breeding experiments on black widows in my dorm room, at night.

Finding many of the science classes impersonal, I declared my major in philosophy. That detour proved to be enlightening and, indeed, my grounding in ethics proved extremely valuable when I later became immersed in national debates regarding stem cells and gene editing of the human germline.

But while I first declared my major in philosophy, serendipity stepped in and refocused my interests towards science. As a freshman on financial aid, I held a work-study job washing dishes in a dining hall. When I returned my sophomore year, I decided to seek more engaging employment—so I got a job washing dishes in a biology lab. I know, not sufficiently entrepreneurial. But I was eager to learn, and within weeks, I was not only washing test tubes and beakers, I was conducting experiments.

Later, after my junior year at Harvard, I shadowed a physician at Mass General and witnessed first-hand the power of medicine to change lives, and thereafter opened my eyes to the prospect of a career in medical research coupled to patient care. 

As a Harvard undergraduate, I was assembling all the pieces to become a physician-scientist. I was configuring a career aspiration that appended scholarship to service. And I was laying a foundation for a life rich and full of meaning and purpose.

The Purpose of Medical Education

As you, the Class of 2017, reflect on all that you’ve accomplished in graduating today, my call to each of you is to always preserve the ideals that first drew you to medicine and to a life of service. The purpose of your medical education is to enable you to serve.

Now, life is all about setting goals and striving to meet them. Your goals, your guideposts, are directly related to your ideals and your values. They reflect who you are at your core.

Setting ambitious goals is essential. You are embarking on your careers at a truly exciting and challenging juncture in human history. 

We live in an increasingly complex, chaotic, and competitive world, one that is changing at a breathtaking pace. The world you are inheriting is one in which science and biomedicine will play a central role. 

Harvard has trained you for this world. Harvard trains leaders, and as a leader you have the responsibility to find solutions for some of our most intractable problems. 

Some of you will work to curb health care costs.

Some of you will innovate in health care delivery.

Some of you will resolve health inequities. 

Some of you will address our nation’s primary care crisis.Some of you will thwart the spread of infectious diseases. 

Some of you will create and improve health care systems in underresourced nations. 

Some of you will translate promising biomedical research into the clinic, pioneering new cures for our patients. 

Yes, the world needs you. The purpose of your medical education is to enable you to serve the world.

Seismic Changes

Now, the world that you think you know so well is changing as I speak to you. Indeed, there will be seismic changes in the next 10, 20 or 30 years. 

There’s an old saw that says half of what we’ve taught you here in medical school will be proven wrong in the future, but—and here’s the conundrum—we don’t know which half.

This is because medicine is on the brink of a sweeping transformation of the human condition. Medical breakthroughs in the next 50 years will dwarf those of the last 1,000.

The sheer volume of information you have acquired in medical school is far greater than what I had to absorb. That volume will only increase, exponentially.  

Consequently, our mission at HMS has been to train and prepare all of you to meet challenges and fully embrace opportunities. You arrived in our community with your own fierce passion to innovate, lead and heal. We have strived to foster in you a zeal for lifelong learning. Your medical education must never stop.

At HMS we have endeavored earnestly to educate you to confront the complexities of modern biomedicine, and to deliver the most compassionate care, so that you may improve and safeguard the quality and richness of human life. 

I can’t think of any more audacious goal than to seek to transform human health and wellness in your careers, or any more worthy means of service than to become a physician.

But to succeed, to deliver on your potential, to realize the full purpose of your medical education, to make a difference in this world, you must infuse your life’s work with the excitement and joy that comes with giving. 

What Brings Happiness  

Research provides evidence that giving is a pathway to personal growth and lasting happiness. Through functional MRI technology, we now know that giving activates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex. Indeed, altruism is hardwired in the brain—it's pleasurable. Through helping others you live a happier, more productive and more meaningful life. And it gets even better—research indicates that living a purposeful, service-oriented life may actually increase your own lifespan. 

Research also shows that giving money away actually makes us happier than spending it on ourselves. And this is true all over the world, even if the people giving money away are relatively poor. Data from 100 countries in a Gallup poll showed that people who donate money to charity are simply happier—in both poor and rich countries.  

And how happy has nothing to do with how much we give, but on what we determine to be the impact of our contribution. The mere act of giving, of being generous, the feeling of making a positive contribution, is what gives us happiness. 

Franklin Roosevelt said, "Happiness is not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort." 

Human connections shape us, give us the wherewithal to see merit and value in the present. Experiences—rather than material things—fulfill more of our psychological needs. 

I can’t think of a profession more imbued with the opportunity for rewarding experiences than medicine. After all, medicine touches on so many aspects of a fulfilling life: learning, puzzling, connecting, giving the gift of health, and, sometimes, giving the gift of life itself. 

Research tells us that experience defines our happiness far more than the amount of money we make and spend in a lifetime. Multiple studies show that a large income and material goods do not guarantee happiness.

A Princeton study revealed that once you earn about $75,000 a year, you get no measurable boost in happiness from making more money. In other words, after you accumulate a certain amount of wealth, it becomes increasingly more difficult to “buy” happiness. 

There is a Chinese saying that goes, “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. But if you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.” These wise words remind us that happiness is not found in material things but in service to others. 

As physicians and scientists, remember that it is our privilege to serve others, our responsibility to ease pain and suffering and our calling to advance health and wellness for our patients. Do not let choices about how you will serve be dictated by ambitions for financial enrichment. As a physician you will always be eminently employable. Instead, choose your career path based on passion and purpose.

Medicine's Future

I look out today and see before me pioneers, inventors, healers, future leaders.  

What kind of world will you be leading? What kind of world can you imagine?

Imagine a world where we prevent disease by editing our genetic code, our DNA. Because of our evolving understanding of the human genome and remarkable new technology for gene editing, we are on a path to curing diseases such as sickle cell anemia and certain forms of deafness and blindness. 

Imagine a world in which we can reprogram, reverse engineer, our own skin cells, growing replacement tissues in the lab to treat the ravages of injury and disease.

Imagine a world where we can halt and even reverse aging.

Imagine a world where we can cure cancer with better, safer drugs—therapeutics so precise they target each patient’s specific abnormal genetic signatures, without the collateral damage that current therapies inflict. 

Imagine a world where we create DNA maps at birth that enable us to forecast and avert the development of disease.

You can make ALL these things happen. You are in the vanguard of a new generation of medical practitioners and scientists who will change the practice of medicine and the quality of human health.

It’s unquestionable: the world needs the best you’ve got to give: your determination, your creativity, your intellect, your compassion and your idealism. I trust that you will do well and contribute much—I have faith that we have prepared you well.  

With this graduation today, you may believe that your medical education is ending, but trust me, it is only just beginning. In that spirit, I want to leave you with a few questions that may help you further identify the goals and guideposts you will need in years to come to realize the full purpose of your lifelong medical education.

How will you remain committed to a life of learning?

What pursuits will give your life true meaning?

How will you fulfill your potential to help and to serve?

What will you do, in your career and in your personal life, to make the world a better place?

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “compassion is a verb.” There is no greater purpose than using your medical education to improve the lives and health of others.

Soon you will receive your diplomas and step across the threshold into a new life, one that you have been working toward for many years. You will make the transition from Harvard Medical School student to Harvard Medical School trained physician. Your friends and family will address you as doctor, and before you know it, you will begin the postgraduate internship programs that mark the threshold of your careers.

Wow, can you believe this day has finally arrived?

Doesn’t it feel good?

I know a little bit about this. Twenty-six years ago I sat where you are sitting, ready to receive my MD degree on this very same Quad. I weathered the address by Jonas Salk, and you have now survived my first commencement address as dean.

Before I finish, let’s all acknowledge that you didn’t get to this moment entirely on your own. Let’s pause to consider all those who have supported you—your parents, your siblings, your partners, your friends and your fellow students. Let’s thank them for all the encouragement, support and love they have provided throughout the years.

I hope I’ve given you some questions to ponder.

I wish you a life filled with the excitement of continuous learning.

I wish you a life filled with the joy that comes with serving others.

I wish you a life of purpose and meaning, and sheer delight. 

It is an honor to celebrate with you on this momentous day. We all look forward to watching your careers flourish as you go forth to make this world a healthier place, and to bring great honor on the Harvard Medical School, and the Harvard School of Dental Medicine.

Congratulations to the Class of 2017!

Remarks as prepared for delivery, May 25, 2017.

George Q. Daley addresses graduates.