From Students to Scientists

More than 100 receive doctoral hoods, join research professions as peers

Auditorium with banners, program heads, graduates and guests

Image: Stephanie Dutchen

From jokes about pets being thanked in thesis acknowledgements sections to shared laughter at the sometimes awkward process of draping doctoral hoods over caps and gowns, spirits ran high at Harvard Medical School’s 12th annual Division of Medical Sciences (DMS) Hooding Ceremony, held May 30 in the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center.

The event celebrates students who earned PhDs in one of nine HMS-based programs, six of which are co-administered by DMS. The doctoral degrees are officially awarded by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Read more about HMS/HSDM Commencement and Class Day.

“DMS established this tradition to locally honor our students, of whom we are very, very proud,” said David Van Vactor, acting director of DMS and professor of cell biology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS.

“We celebrate our graduates’ transition from students to fellow scientists and professionals,” he said.

HMS Dean George Q. Daley toasted the new graduates on the culmination of their efforts and said they can expect a bright future.

“All of us who are professional practitioners of science can testify that you have a remarkably fulfilling and satisfying career ahead, whether you work in academia, industry or the private or public sector,” Daley said.

“I look forward to seeing where you go next and what you will achieve when you get there,” he added.

Writing their own futures

Young woman of South Asian descent smiling at podium
Vinidhra Mani. Image: Steve Gilbert

Student speaker Vinidhra Mani, who received her PhD in immunology, said that she and her fellow graduates, like the T cells she studied at HMS, are shaped by their interactions with others in their environment.

Students, faculty and other mentors “have given me the confidence to pick battles, go after the more robust yet less flashy science, continue to seek appropriate feedback from others and come back to trusting my gut,” she said. 

For television fans in the audience, Mani also offered an extended tongue-in-cheek comparison between pursuing a PhD and watching the series “Game of Thrones.”

“It starts out super exciting and promising,” then takes a dive into moments of terror alternating with long stretches of uneventfulness, “all finally culminating in a six-week blur of an adrenaline rush leading up to the defense,” she said.

“The most important parallel is that the PhD can also take over eight years to finish, and yet you can still draw very little satisfaction,” she joked. 

On a more sincere note, she concluded, “I can’t wait to see what story this group … will write over a lifetime.”

Beloved leader

Each year at the ceremony, DMS bestows a Distinguished Faculty Award for exceptional contributions to graduate education. The 2019 honor went to David Cardozo, associate dean for basic graduate studies, who led DMS for more than 10 years before stepping down in 2018.

Cardozo provided “tireless and passionate support for our many students and leadership for the division staff,” said Van Vactor.

“Graduate students, it’s been a joy to be a dean for you,” Cardozo said. “I’ve been thrilled by your brilliance, your innovation, your creativity, your resilience in the face of a lot of challenges.”

“I’m thrilled by your goodness, and I know you’re going to do great things in this world,” he added. “I’m proud to have been associated with you.”

Despite insisting that he didn’t deserve the award but rather was being given credit for the achievements of an outstanding team, Cardozo received a standing ovation.

Long-term honors

This year also marked the first annual presentation of the Career Service Award by DMS and the HMS Program in Medical Education.

Not one but two inaugural recipients were selected: Edwin Furshpan, the Robert Henry Pfeiffer Professor of Neurobiology, Emeritus, and the late David Potter, former Robert Winthrop Professor of Neurobiology, Emeritus. Potter died in February.

Furshpan and Potter represent “two really amazing faculty pioneers who worked together as close partners to transform HMS curriculum and diversity over many years,” said Van Vactor.

Edward Kravitz, the George Packer Berry Professor of Neurobiology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS, described how Furshpan and Potter helped establish the HMS Department of Neurobiology 50 years ago and continued to shape the School through participation in activities such as department chairmanships and contributions to the design of the New Pathway curriculum. 

In addition, they were well known for working on a national scale to “enlarge the pipeline” for students from underrepresented groups, particularly Native American communities, to pursue successful careers in medicine and research, starting in the 1960s, Kravitz said.

“I cannot think of anyone I have known or met or who is or has been at Harvard Medical School in the 60 years that we have been faculty here who are more deserving of this award than Ed and Dave,” Kravitz said. 

“They have been outstanding scientists, willing sharers of administrative responsibilities, and, first and foremost, eminent educators, champions of students, and pioneers in opening up educational opportunities for minority and Native American students here and elsewhere in the nation,” he said.

Ed Hundert, dean for medical education and the Daniel D. Federman, M.D. Professor in Residence of Global Health and Social Medicine and Medical Education at HMS, handed out the awards. Mary Potter, professor of psychology, emerita, at MIT and former chair of the MIT faculty, accepted on her late husband’s behalf.

Dozens of new PhD recipients stand outside
Graduates of the HMS PhD Program in Biological and Biomedical Sciences stand with David Golan, dean for basic science and graduate education, and Susan Dymecki, director of the BBS program and professor of genetics at HMS. Image: Steve Gilbert