HMS Bioethicist Exhorts Master's Grads to Hold the Lessons of COVID

Speaker reminds master's graduates to pay attention to the traces the pandemic left in their hearts

Rebecca Weintraub Brendel speaks to the master's graduates about endless opportunities.

Dean Daley, Dean Segal, Senior Associate Dean Gutlerner, faculty, administrators, family, friends, and most of all, graduates, I am so honored to have this opportunity to address you today as we celebrate the accomplishments of this year’s Harvard Medical School master’s graduates and the growth and impact of the HMS masters’ programs themselves. At my first master’s graduation in 2016 with the first graduating class of the master of bioethics program, there were six masters programs, 10 bioethics graduates, and a total of 63 graduates. We not only fit in an auditorium, but rows were also cordoned off so it didn’t look empty!

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Seven years later, there are nine programs and more than 275 graduates receiving their degrees and being honored under this grand tent. As Dean Daley said, this growth represents the growing complexity of our world, need for scientific and biomedical leadership, and the opportunities for impact. On behalf of all the master’s program directors, we are so proud of you, and know that as you head out with diplomas in hand, you are ready to do great things. We cannot wait to see what you accomplish.

And we need you, the next generation of leaders in biomedical science and informatics, immunology, medical education, clinical investigation, operations, quality and safety, global health delivery, health communications, and bioethics. You are graduating at an extraordinary time in history and a pivotal moment for our society as we face the future. For the past three years, our lives have been disrupted and dominated by the COVID-19 global pandemic. For the past three years, our shared goals in the biomedical community and our responsibilities were in sharp relief as we rose to the occasion to first flatten the curve and reduce the spread of COVID-19 and then harness our knowledge, science, and shared global ingenuity to develop a vaccine and therapeutics to prevail and bring the pandemic to its conclusion. For the past three years, we’ve all remembered where we were when the world shut down with little notice or preparation. The challenge for us today is what now.

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to advance our work and the human condition as we rebuild.

As you graduate today, you stand with the world at a crossroads. With the expiration of the public health emergency in the U.S. on the eve of this grand moment in your lives, you are no doubt each asking yourselves where you will go next. That a very important question both for every graduate and for the people who supported your work and nurtured you through the vicissitudes and trials of these degrees you’ve now completed. Yet at this critical time, as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, we must be sure to ask ourselves not only where we can go, but where we ought to go. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to advance our work and the human condition as we rebuild.

We have before us, then, both the inevitability of, and the responsibility for, creating the post-pandemic future. The inevitability of the future is perhaps so obvious it needs no attention. But just to be sure, what I mean by this inevitability is that time will go on and things will happen whether we plan them or not and whether we like it or not. Our responsibility for the future, however, is an entirely different and tremendously demanding matter. To figure out how we fulfill our responsibility for the post-pandemic future requires us to remember where we’ve been and to discern what we’ve learned as we set one foot in front of the other in pursuit of the future.

During the height of the pandemic, we longed for a return to normal, to the ways things used to be. We are not alone in this nostalgic desire. It is one powerful dimension of our survival narrative. For example, this phenomenon is prominent in French Nobel laureate Albert Camus’ literary treatment of contagion in The Plague, which describes the course and experience of a rat-borne pestilence in the fictional French port city of Oran sometime in the mid-twentieth century. Before the plague, Oran was known best for its ordinariness, in Camus’ words, “the banality of the town’s appearance and of life in it.” Overnight, however, Oran became anything but commonplace as it went into quarantine lockdown. For much of the work, Camus chronicles the turn of events resulting from Oran’s plague that we are now all too familiar with from our own pandemic experience. Late in the book, as the pestilence is on the wane, however, the narrative turns to where we find ourselves now: the future.

Taking on the desire for nostalgic return, one character asks, “But what do you mean by a return to normal life?” The response from another, “New films at the picture-houses.” In this mundane response, Camus captures the desire to go back to the simple pleasures of life as we once knew it, worry not, even escape our reality at the movies for a few hours. After all, after three years, haven’t we had enough?

Camus proceeds to wonder about this wish to erase the plague in favor of precontagion simplicity, “Was it supposed … that the plague wouldn’t have changed anything and the life of the town would go on as before, exactly as if nothing had happened?” He acknowledges the wish to be able to forget and to move forward, “naturally our fellow citizens’ strongest desire was, and would be, to behave as if nothing had changed and for that reason nothing would be changed, in a sense.” After all, it’s hard to see all that we’ve been through and all that’s been lost in full relief.

Camus, however, quickly counters this desire to forget by offering an alternate view: “But to look at it from another angle one can’t forget everything, however great one’s wish to do so; the plague was bound to leave traces, anyhow, in people’s hearts.” Today, too, we must not forget the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has left traces in our hearts. On this account, what we’ve accomplished and learned from the COVID-19 pandemic has a lot to do with science and discovery and also much to do with our humanity and our values.

What the post-pandemic future will look like is our responsibility.

What the post-pandemic future will look like is our responsibility. As leaders in the biomedical field we face immense opportunities and also challenges. Our science is developing beyond what was imaginable even a decade ago. Gene-editing technology, mRNA vaccines, cloning, and augmented intelligence are some notable examples. At a time of triumph with the most rapid and promising vaccine development process in the history of the human race, however, bringing the miracle of science into public acceptance was anything but straightforward. In the polarized political environment that we find ourselves in, even well-accepted, reproducible, and demonstrable scientific facts are subject to debate and even rejection. While we likely cannot counter politics singlehandedly or individually take on every instance of misinformation and disinformation, there are critical steps that we can take.

First, especially in light of those who would discredit the power of science to save lives for their own gain, we must be sure that our work, our data, our communication, and our community engagement uphold the pillars of integrity, honesty, and reliability. More so even than celebrating our discovery and achievement, we must also be transparent about the limitations of what we know and what we can do with what we know such that we do not undermine the public credibility of scientific knowledge with unsubstantiated exuberance.

Rigorously conducted science is a critical pillar of a brighter and healthier future. But, alone, it will not be enough in a post-pandemic world. We must also lean into the traces, the indelible imprints of the pandemic in our hearts as the broader decisions we make as a society go beyond data and facts to the realms of values, judgments, relationality, and shared commitments. The challenges ahead in the post-pandemic world require us to focus on our knowledge and also on the pandemic’s vestiges residing deep within. All of which is to say that this core idea of following our reason and data and our hearts and emotions in our work must be central as we face our post-pandemic future. This idea is not new.

For centuries, philosophers and social scientists alike have posited that traces in our hearts what we might identify as our commitments and passions are important motivators and drivers of action. For example, the Scottish philosopher David Hume in the 1700s famously critiqued reliance on reason as motivating behavior and grounding moral reasoning, calling it the “slave of the passions.” Hume himself had quite a lot to say about this assessment, as have countless scholars of his work since the time of his writings. But for today, the key point is resonance with the echoes COVID-19 has left behind in our hearts and our humanity. For Hume, thinking and reasoning alone are indolent; our desire comes first and then our reasoning is instrumental in bringing about our response, our moral assessments, and our actions.

We must pursue our science not just because we can, but because our values and commitments the traces in our hearts guide us that we should or we must in the interest of a brighter and healthier future.

In all that we do and discover, we must ask why, understand, and be clear about our motivations and goals. Our rigorous science itself is objective, but the commitments underpinning what we choose to investigate and the implications of our discoveries are not value-neutral. In other words, we must pursue our science not just because we can, but because our values and commitments the traces in our hearts guide us that we should or we must in the interest of a brighter and healthier future. If Camus is correct that we cannot and as I’ve argued ought not forget the lingering effects of a harrowing global pandemic, one that took the lives of more than a million people in the U.S. alone, then we must answer its calling. How we emerge from the crucible of COVID-19 to address the challenges at hand for our society and our planet will depend on how we generate knowledge in the service of health going forward. And it will also depend on how we heed the moral remnants of COVID in our hearts to ask questions about our responsibilities and commitments to creating the world of the future.

We must remember to ask not only can we, but should we, and why, and if so, when. What are the scientific gains society needs for a post-pandemic future and how do we make them broadly available in the interest of human progress, health, and justice? How will we ensure that in deciding what discovery to pursue we are making choices that benefit the many, not just the curiosity and well-being of the few? We cannot accept the stark disparities in health and in life we experience in this country, not to mention globally. These considerations are, and ought to be, the post-pandemic imprints in our hearts.

Driving science and clinical practice with values, of course, is no small task, especially in the polarized world in which we now find ourselves. But we need not and must not lose hope that we can heal as a society. We shouldn’t be surprised that we are facing so many challenges after the disruption of COVID-19. We no doubt have challenges before us, but we also have a rare, a perhaps once-in-a-century, opportunity to reinvigorate our institutions and public lives by following the traces in our hearts towards recapturing connection, fostering relationships, and strengthening communities from a place of shared values. On this view, the challenges are great but the possibilities are endless.

And so, as you are graduating, today you are receiving an academic degree and a diploma as tangible proof of your accomplishments. You are passing from one stage of knowledge and experience to a higher one, which positions you to embrace a vision for the future that draws not only on our science and knowledge but celebrates our humanity and values the traces in our hearts occasioned by these unfathomable three years of pandemic. Before we move on to celebrations, however, a word of caution. Graduate also means “to change gradually,” a reminder that this road ahead is long and will no doubt have its challenges. We cannot get discouraged. Our measured and consistent efforts will lead to success in the long run so long as we lead with our values to embrace the potential of our science.

As we move forward from this day into the post-pandemic future and realize the potential and power of data and technology, immunology, clinical science, innovation, services, quality and safety, communication, media, global health delivery, and bioethics, let us not forget the traces in our hearts in setting the course. Where we go from here is ours to create.

2023 master’s graduates, the future is yours and the future will be bright by virtue of your contributions as you embark on your journeys. We could not be prouder of you.