Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Harvard University and Harvard Medical School held virtual graduation ceremonies to ensure the health and safety of the Harvard communities. In-person celebrations will take place at a later date.
Hello graduates and families. And thank you, Dr. Rosalind Segal, and all of the faculty leaders and program managers from all the master’s programs we are celebrating today, for welcoming me. And of course, thank you to HMS Dean Dr. George Daley, for your leadership and your partnership.
It is truly an honor to join all of you on this incredibly special occasion in your lives. Graduations are a mark in time. They are a formal recognition of the hard work, dedication and commitment you have put forth. And the traits that you have summoned to get to this day will serve you well no matter what you do or where you go.
As the president of Dana-Farber, I see people using those traits to help others every single day as we deliver the best possible care to patients facing cancer, while also pursuing the scientific research to discover the cures of tomorrow. As you go forth with your master’s degree, you can join the cause to help others. You can make a profound difference in people’s lives.
Certainly, this is not the ceremony you or your families imagined, or the ceremony you earned after years of hard work and sacrifice. But it will undoubtedly be a ceremony you never forget. Like so many special occasions and milestones during this pandemic, we’re physically separated from the friends and loved ones we’ve leaned on to reach moments like this, and who we wish we could be celebrating with.
Yet even though we may not be together in person, everyone, including your professors, your families, your friends and I, are incredibly proud of you for reaching this moment. And I’m very grateful for the opportunity to join you.
For all that this pandemic has disrupted, and all the uncertainty that surrounds it, there is one thing we can all be sure of: there is nothing more important than the work that lies ahead—locally and globally—no matter what your focus or specialty.
Adapting to COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended every aspect of how we live and how we work—especially in health care, from managing hospital operations to caring for patients to carrying on scientific and clinical research.
When the pandemic started, one of major challenges we faced at Dana-Farber was how we could limit the number of patients we see in person, while continuing to deliver the high-quality care they count on.
Because for our patients, the urgency of cancer is unavoidable. Cancer does not wait. And neither could we. We had to quickly and radically shift how we deliver much of our care.
One of the first things we did was start using telemedicine—having patient appointments on video or by telephone. Until recently, regulatory and reimbursement issues limited how much telemedicine we could do.
But as the pandemic took hold and rules were eased, we were able to quickly adapt and jumpstart telemedicine options for our patients—for those who do not necessarily need to be on site to talk to their doctor or for treatment. This was both a phenomenal achievement and an opportunity. In a matter of just a few weeks, we went from conducting almost no telemedicine to more than 3,000 visits per week.
One of the things we’ve learned from this is that this can actually be good for patients. For those who don’t need to be seen on site, a telemedicine visit saves travel time and waiting time—and they can still see a doctor, and a doctor can see them. And in many cases, family members who could not accompany a patient to a physical visit were able to join the virtual appointment. Of course, this will never completely replace in-person visits. And in many cases, doctors do, of course, need to physically see a patient. But telemedicine has opened a world of possibilities to deliver health care safely, effectively, and with expertise and compassion. The pandemic forced us to do it very quickly.
And for us at Dana-Farber, it illustrates that what we’re typically able to do for patients in Boston could be extended to patients everywhere and anywhere, and could remove many of the barriers that stand between patients and the care that could save their lives.
This is the kind of advancement and progress that can emerge from a crisis. It tests us and demands the best of us.
Because again, cancer doesn’t wait. And despite the extraordinary challenge of the COVID 19 pandemic, this remains a revolutionary time for the science of cancer care.
Recent discoveries in genomics and immunotherapy have created a new world of possibilities for treating many cancers long thought to be untreatable, enabling us to help more people. And with this remarkable window of opportunity that we’re in today, we can ill afford to lose a single step in that progress.
Incredibly, while we’ve had to adapt our research operations and limit the amount of people in our labs, we’ve been able to keep most of our clinical trials and other research priorities moving forward. Because we must. Yes, the challenges we’ve faced for the last several months are unprecedented. 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.
Passion and persistence
The truth is there will always be hurdles and obstacles in your work and in your lives. No part of working in medicine or science is easy. Early in my career, I learned that science is not only discovery; it is persistence and perseverance. I remember when I was a young scientist during my postdoctoral period, and I had just joined the lab. The experiments were difficult, and things weren’t working well, and in the early afternoon, I walked out of the lab in frustration. I ran into my dad; we were both at Harvard Medical School at the time.
I was leaving, and he said, “where are you going?” I answered, “I am going home. It’s really been a discouraging day. Nothing’s worked.” And he said, “you need to return to the lab. That’s exactly when you have to go back and try twice as hard.” He was absolutely right.
There’s a lot of excitement and inspiration in science, but to get there you have to be willing to put up with the frustrations and failures. Those are the immense difficulties of being a scientist: most ideas are wrong. The things you have learned—the importance of data and what it means; how not to be fooled by circumstance and happenstance; the capacity for thinking critically and the capability to design and carry out studies that are imaginative, that attack important problems and that are controlled and to the point—these are the characteristics of innovators, of people who drive the future forward.
Stories are also important for the scientists among us. Behind some of the greatest discoveries in medical science are compelling stories, often with many twists and turns, detours and delays. That’s how scientific research works in real life.
Let me give you an example. One of my favorite stories of discovery is about a scientist named Barney Rosenberg, who was trained as a physicist. He wasn’t working on any problem related to human disease, but because of his curiosity, he may have saved the lives of more cancer patients than most of the cancer researchers in the world combined.
The story starts in 1964. Barney Rosenberg wanted to see what would happen if bacteria were placed in a strong electric field. He put some E. coli cells in a dish with two platinum electrodes and turned on the current. To his surprise, the bacteria cells stopped dividing. In addition, they grew from small rods into long filaments, up to 300 times their normal length. Rosenberg happened to know that E. coli exhibits this kind of behavior only under certain conditions, including when it’s exposed to antitumor drugs.
He then figured out that a particular substance was being generated electrochemically from the electrodes and the buffer solution in his experiment. That substance was cisplatin, a compound first described in 1848 and thought to be poisonous. But knowing that cisplatin was causing bacteria to behave in the same way that some antitumor drugs do, Rosenberg wondered whether cisplatin could have anticancer properties of its own.
He needed help to test his hypothesis because he had never done that kind of experimental work before. He teamed up with colleagues in other departments in order to administer cisplatin in mice, and eventually in humans. By 1973, it was clear that the drug was helping patients with testicular and ovarian cancers, two diseases that were notoriously difficult to treat at the time. As doctors learned how to manage its side effects, cisplatin went on to become one of the top-selling cancer drugs in the world. It’s still widely used today to treat multiple types of cancer.
Breakthroughs often emerge through a combination of serendipity, persistence, daring and collaboration. The discovery of cisplatin came completely from left field, from a physicist curious about bacteria and electricity. Yet it ended up transforming the way we treat cancer. As this story shows, sometimes an initial, seemingly random question or observation can set a whole chain of events in motion. Following a scientific story to its end can take us down an unpredictable path, but in the best cases, that path ultimately leads back to the patient.
It's a thrilling time to be starting your careers. Who knows what cures, what breakthroughs, what revolutions in treatment lie just around the corner?
So, know that you’re going to have failures. But you can’t give up. You need to be daring. The most important thing is wanting to wake up in the morning and feeling the excitement, that “I can’t wait” feeling to go to work and try new things. There will be some days you might feel that nothing is working, but you will need to summon the discipline and the energy to go in and do it anyway.
That’s the type of perseverance that it will take to overcome the challenges you will encounter in your careers, whether it’s a setback on an experiment, or managing through a public health crisis like COVID-19.
The rallying cry for this pandemic is that “we are all in this together.” And it’s true. It’s true personally as we adapt to new realities—how we navigate the world, see our friends and loved ones, support and care for our children and family members and so much more.
And we’ve seen more than ever that how we personally act is inextricably linked to the lives of others, whether they live across the hall, across the street or across the globe.
Being in this together is also true of the frontline health care workers, my colleagues, who are seeing some of the sickest patients and bearing witness to the heartbreak and tragedy of this disease, who depend and lean on each other to keep going from one day into the next.
Their work on the frontlines of this pandemic is nothing short of heroic. But a hero, in the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “cannot be a hero unless in a heroic world.”
That’s what we are all part of. That’s what it means to be in this together.
While we are all rallying to support heroic efforts of our health care workers, who are part of a massive and global effort to confront this virus, the scientific community desperately working to understand this disease, and relentlessly chasing ways to treat and stop it, are also heroes.
Collaboration is the key to overcoming this crisis. And few times in our history have we ever turned our collective focus toward a single issue the way we are doing today.
The power of science and medicine is on full display. People all over the world are putting their hope and faith in science like never before. And the power of science is born from collaboration: working together, sharing knowledge, sharing resources, overcoming barriers and tearing down walls no matter where they’re located, and setting aside egos and credit.
Collaboration is how we make breakthroughs in cancer and all diseases. It’s how we solve societal problems and make the world a better place. And it is how we will overcome this pandemic.
The truth is we’ve always been in this together. No woman or man is an island. We are all affected by the actions of others. 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.
This is now your time. 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.
And by all being agents of health, you are agents of hope for humanity. I have great hope for each and every one of you. You are blessed with enormous potential and the support of your family and loved ones, your friends, classmates and peers, your professors and mentors.
We believe in you, and we are counting on you.
And while we may be physically apart today, we are celebrating together. You have much to be proud of.
As you go forth today, remember that you always have a home HMS. And keep in mind words of American novelist Edith Wharton, who wrote that what keeps us all alive and vital is being “unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things and happy in small ways.” To the class of 2020, I offer you heartfelt congratulations and my warmest best wishes for your happiness and success. Well done—and good luck.
Thank you for inviting me to share your special day. Congratulations, graduates!