This is one of a series of stories about Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Dental Medicine graduation celebrations and the Schools’ graduates.
For Harvard Medical School’s 144 master’s program graduates, and the 25 MD-PhD grads commencing this month, there may never be a more important time to be working in the fields of science and medicine.
The global coronavirus pandemic, as tragic and difficult as it has been, has illuminated the vast need for physicians and scientists dedicated to improving and protecting human health, the graduates were told during this year’s graduation ceremonies.
“When historians look back on the pandemic,” said keynote speaker Dan Barouch, MD ’99, during HMS's virtual Master’s Graduation Ceremony on May 27, “they will undoubtedly document many terrible things, but the shining light will be the power of science and the compassion of medicine to solve global health problems.”
Barouch, the HMS William Bosworth Castle Professor of Medicine and director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, played a key role in the design of the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen coronavirus vaccine, one of three vaccines approved for use in the U.S.
For 20 years, Barouch has been developing the vaccine design, which has also shown promise against HIV, Zika, and Ebola.
He told the grads that U.S. scientists’ historic success creating three COVID-19 vaccines in less than a year could largely be credited to preceding decades of advances in vaccine science and immunology, particularly discoveries around gene-based mRNA and vector vaccines.
Unprecedented collaboration and funding also helped, Barouch said, along with the initiation of huge clinical trials that allowed for rapid safety and efficacy evaluations.
Although Barouch said he could not predict when the pandemic might end, he said terminating it will require a global solution.
“It’s a race between vaccination of the world and the emergence of variants that can undermine vaccine control,” he said. “We can’t be safe until everyone is safe, because the virus surging anywhere in the world leads to risks of variants everywhere in the world.”
He added that HMS master’s graduates were now equipped to be part of the answer. He urged them to “first, tackle hard problems” and “second, find ways to make the world a better place.”
Anika Singh, the master’s student council president who received her MMSc in clinical investigation, was the student speaker for the ceremony. She said because of the pandemic, the past year was not what any of the students expected. In addition to earning their degrees in challenging academic circumstances, they were also contending with unprecedented social and political upheaval across the country and the world.
“What we learned in this past year or so could not have been taught to many classes before us: resilience, focus, teamwork, looking out for others, and most of all, flexibility. All of these attributes, in addition to our coursework, will help us forge our way through the ever-changing ‘new normal’ that this year and future years will have in store for us,” Singh said.
HMS Dean George Q. Daley commended the master’s graduates, many of whom already hold advanced degrees or work as practicing physicians or health care professionals, for earning their degrees amid the rigors of the pandemic.
“Your work here has prepared you well to help find answers to some of the most challenging questions we face in medicine—from foundational questions about basic biomedical science to the crucial questions of how to deliver the best possible care to all who need it, how to treat our patients with the care they deserve, and how to train the next generation of leaders to carry on our work in years to come,” Daley said.
The dean noted the diversity of the group, whose students this year hailed from more than 35 countries, from Brazil to New Guinea and from Malawi to Malaysia.
The grads received degrees from eight HMS master’s programs: bioethics, biomedical informatics, clinical investigation, global health delivery, health care quality and safety, immunology, medical education, and clinical service operations.
Dean for Graduate Education Rosalind Segal said that all the HMS master’s degree programs share a goal of training future leaders who can advance the world’s understanding of disease and improve care for patients everywhere.
“Much of their work and studies have been carried out under the difficult circumstances of the pandemic, but these students have persevered and excelled in spite of the obstacles,” Segal said. “This is a celebration of educating the next generation of leaders in biomedicine and health sciences and a recognition of your dedication and resilience.”
In a separate May 25 ceremony for MD-PhD graduates, Loren Walensky, director of the Harvard/MIT MD-PhD program and an HMS professor of pediatrics at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, served as master of ceremonies. He lauded the program’s 25 graduates for earning not one but two challenging degrees simultaneously in the midst of a global pandemic.
“You have become soldiers on the front lines of a public health crisis whose outcome still remains to be written,” he told them.
“You have seen how the impact of science and medicine has made our collective recovery a reality through a vaccine in record time. You are now armed with the best possible training to help the world navigate a path forward that will not only lead to an end to this horrific pandemic, but bring us to new heights of prevention and treatment that will mitigate individual and collective pain and suffering,” he said.
The MD-PhD Class of 2021 consisted of six women and 19 men who earned MD degrees while pursuing dissertations in a wide range of fields including anthropology, biology, biophysics, oncology, chemistry, computer sciences, nephrology, environmental exposures, epidemiology, genetics, genomics, immunology, neuroscience, stem cell science, and virology.
In a brief, virtual congratulatory toast, Daley lauded the graduates’ perseverance and outstanding accomplishments.
“You are the future of translational medicine,” he said. “You are the physician-scientists whose leadership and commitment to the highest standards of clinical care and fundamental discovery will shape biomedicine in the decades to come.”
The MD-PhD ceremony, which drew more than 100 online participants, including graduates’ family members and friends, included reflections from students Ann Cathcart, Aditya Kalluri, David Reshef, and Abigail Schiff. They talked about the importance of positivity in accomplishing hard tasks, the obligation to teach and mentor others and to tackle hard problems, and the generosity of spirit from others that helped them accomplish their goals.The MD/PhDs also participated in the Class Day ceremony.
“Seeing the crisis that COVID has caused, and the miracle of vaccine development, has only strengthened my commitment to the physician-scientist career path,” said Schiff. “I’m so grateful for this incredible community, and I can’t wait to give back to patients, trainees, and colleagues as a doctor and scientist.