On May 22, an overflowing tent of family, friends, faculty, and staff in Amistad Park celebrated the graduation of the 107 members of the Yale School of Medicine (YSM) MD Class of 2023. They also celebrated science and medicine.
Many of the graduates started medical school in August 2019, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the world and significantly altered their medical school experience. So it was fitting that Anthony S. Fauci, MD, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health—who notably played a critical role addressing the pandemic—delivered their commencement address. When Fauci, who also had been President Biden’s chief medical advisor, arrived on stage for the ceremony, the crowd gave him a standing ovation, and erupted into cheers again when an audience member shouted, “We love you, Dr. Fauci.”
From the podium, class member Isaiah Thomas—who along with Akhil Upneja had been chosen by the class to deliver the invocation— gave Fauci a more humorous kind of love: “I imagine being a retired chief medical advisor is pretty similar to the last year of med school: we both probably spend 40% of our time doing Zoom interviews, and the other 60% trying to figure out an answer when people ask, ‘so what are you up to these days?’”
In her welcome, Nancy J. Brown, MD, Jean and David W. Wallace Dean and C.N.H. Long Professor of Internal Medicine, said that the students are entering the medical profession “at a time when, ironically, despite the rapid implementation of life-saving therapies and development of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, trust in medical science is declining.” She reflected on how the “increasing rapidity with which research findings became public during the pandemic meant that people were left to synthesize conflicting information. Public dialogues about scientific findings too often became politicized or deteriorated into an exercise in defending one’s own position [rather than] in carefully and collaboratively considering the alternatives.”
Against this backdrop, Brown said that the graduates and the commencement class oath they wrote— which they read toward the end of the ceremony — provide “a great deal of hope.” Brown continued, “As students of the Yale System, you have learned curiosity and, with it, humility.” She highlighted parts of their oath including to “strive to earn the trust of my patients,” “listen first and counsel second,” and the importance of learning from mistakes.
In introducing Fauci, Brown explained that each year the graduating class selects a speaker who most inspires them. Fauci, in turn, began his speech by noting the “profound disruptions” the COVID-19 pandemic had on the graduates’ lives during medical school and expressing his “enormous respect” for their dedication that allowed them to successfully complete their training “under these trying circumstances.”
Learning During the Time of COVID
He emphasized that this unusual experience also provided them “a unique training opportunity, with a frontline view of this historic public health crisis,” adding that “the adaptability, resilience, and courage seen in Yale’s response to COVID, which many of you were a part of, will serve you well in your future as medical professionals. It is an experience you never will or should forget.”
Fauci then turned to lessons learned—now that we are in the “post-emergency” stage of the COVID pandemic—that can help us prepare for the next public health challenge, and also provide guidance for the graduates’ future professional and personal experiences.
"Expect the Unexpected"
Fauci told the graduating class to “expect the unexpected,” noting that if a number of unexpected things had not happened to him in the five decades since he finished medical school, his life would have taken a different path and someone else would have been at the podium giving this commencement speech. He added that the COVID-19 era has been filled with the unexpected.
As he and his colleagues worked to anticipate the virus’s behavior, there were “more surprises than familiarities,” both in the practice of medicine and in life more generally. He added, “any predictions we might make about how a situation will evolve must always be provisional … Accepting that reality requires open-mindedness and flexibility in assessing a situation and readjusting as new information becomes available.”
Advocate for Science
Noting the current political atmosphere, Fauci told the graduates, “Be guided by science and be wary of the insidious nature of anti-science.”
Loud cheers followed this statement, reflecting strong support in the audience for Fauci and for science, and serving as a counter to a small group of anti-science protesters across the street.
Fauci discussed the “breathtaking scientific and logistic accomplishment” of the COVID mRNA vaccine development, which saved millions of lives, and yet, he expressed great concern that the “significant anti-science forces in our society accelerated during the pandemic, becoming bolder, louder, and more entrenched.” Fauci continued, “Scientific findings backed by solid evidence are routinely mischaracterized, distorted, and even vilified, and conspiracy theories reinforce unfounded narratives about the safety and effectiveness of proven countermeasures.” He continued that “anti-science sentiments are part of a pervasive and more troublesome problem in our society: the tacit acceptance and normalization of untruths.”
His call to the graduating class was straightforward: “I implore you, push back. Do so not with hostility but with civility, but also with all the wisdom and strength you can muster.”
“Care of the Patient”
Fauci then turned to the role of the clinician. While advances in medical technology “continually improve and sometimes transform the practice of medicine,” he said, “they cannot and do not care for your patient. During your patient encounters, what matters most is your compassion and your humanity—what we call the art of medicine. I have tried never to forget that. I urge you to do the same.”
“Make Room for Joy”
Finally, Fauci counseled them, “your professional life need not be at odds with having a deep well of personal relationships and interests that you value and nurture. Engage with these sources of well-being often and delight in the joy, fulfillment, and contentment they bring.”
There was much joy immediately after Fauci’s speech—for which he received another standing ovation—during the conferring of degrees. Enthusiastic cheers and applause filled Amistad Park as graduates one-by-one received their diplomas. (Among the degree recipients were 22 joint MD and PhD degrees, eight joint MD and MHS degrees, seven joint MD and MBA degrees, and two joint MD and MPH degrees, as well as three students receiving their MD degree and the Certificate in Global Medicine.)
Following a YSM tradition, teaching awards were announced during the ceremony. “Teaching, and those who excel at it, are highly valued at Yale and are the cornerstones of the foundation on which this great institution is built,” Brown stated during the ceremony. The awards and recipients are listed and described below.
Charles W. Bohmfalk Prizes for Teaching. One prize is given to a faculty member teaching in the basic sciences, and one to a faculty member teaching in the clinical sciences.
Basic Sciences: Sabrina Nuñez, PhD, associate professor of genetics
One student noted, “Dr. Nunez is described as one of the most inspirational, generous and kind professors, quite possibly the best professor I have ever had.”
Clinical sciences: Shefali Pathy, MD, MPH, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology & reproductive sciences
One nominator noted, “Dr. Pathy leads by example in her clinical work and is praised by all learners as a caring and dedicated physician, educator and mentor. Despite the busy nature of the Women’s Center, she always takes the time to teach and give feedback in the moment to all learners.”
The Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award presented by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation recognizes and honors a faculty member who has demonstrated particular compassion and sensitivity in the delivery of care to patients.
Sharon Chekijian, MD, MPH, associate professor of emergency medicine
One nominator noted, “Dr. Chekijian has an unrelenting commitment to humanism in a chaotic emergency department. Her commitment to patient-centered care has made her engagement in the work unwavering and a true north star for the department of EM.”
The Leah Lowenstein Award is presented annually at graduation to the Yale School of Medicine faculty member who is the model of a medical educator whose humane teaching reaches and influences all students regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic background. These are the traits espoused by the late Leah Lowenstein, a medical educator and first female dean of a co-educational medical school (Jefferson Medical College during the 1980s).
Silvia Vilarinho, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine (digestive diseases) and of pathology
One student noted, “Dr. Vilarinho’s commitment to her students and a mentor is unmatched. She is active in all levels of student education and training and still makes time for teaching rounds. She will always make time to review presentations and data, and uphold students to the highest standard for rigor and reproducibility.”
The Alvan R. Feinstein Award is awarded annually to a Yale School of Medicine faculty member chosen by the chairs and faculty of the clinical departments and members of the graduating class as the outstanding teacher of clinical skills.
Jean Bolognia, MD, professor of dermatology
One student noted, “I believe that every dermatologist who has trained in the past two decades owes Dr. Bolognia a debt of gratitude for taking an exceedingly complicated subject and presenting it in an engaging and digestible manner. I am so lucky to have trained under her and I can think of no one more deserving of this award.”
The Francis Gilman Blake Award is presented annually to a member of the faculty of the School of Medicine designated by the graduating class as the most outstanding teacher of the medical sciences.
Michael Cappello, MD, professor of pediatrics (infectious diseases) and of microbial pathogenesis, and chair and professor of epidemiology (microbial diseases)
In presenting this award, Ryan Fan, MD, one of the Class of 2023 class presidents, stated, “This year’s award goes to a faculty member who has been an exceptional mentor in both the professional and personal spheres. He goes above and beyond to help students achieve their own goals, and puts incredible time and energy into each one of his mentees.”
The Betsy Winters House Staff Award is presented annually to two members of the Yale-New Haven Medical Center house staff who, as excellent educators and role models, have made the most significant contribution to medical student education.
Justin Nguyen, MD, a chief resident, Department of Urology
Zeyu (Jack) Tang, MD, the second class president, stated that Nguyen “has been involved with medical students at every stage of training—from being part of pre-clinical interest group sessions to leading a bootcamp for graduating students.”
Stephen Wang, MD, MPH, a PGY-3 resident, Department of Internal Medicine
Fan said Wang “is highlighted for the careful ways he uplifts medical students on his wards, through education, support, and enthusiasm.”