“Let’s take a moment to reflect that we are all sitting here together today because of a vaccine,” remarked Nancy J. Brown, MD, Jean and David W. Wallace Dean and C.N.H. Long Professor of Internal Medicine, at the May 24 Commencement ceremony for the Yale School of Medicine (YSM) MD Class of 2021, held in Amistad Park.
While only graduates, deans, and academic advisors could attend in person, and masks and social distancing protocols were in place—as well as elbow bumping when Brown handed students their diplomas—the limited in-person ceremony marked a dramatic change from last year’s virtual event. It provided a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the 92 graduating students, honor outstanding teachers, and reflect how current challenges have both impacted the graduating students and readied them to contribute meaningfully to society.
In her Invocation remarks, graduating student June Criscione, MD, noted that when she and her classmates sat side-by-side years ago at their White Coat Ceremony, “we could not have predicted that our time at Yale School of Medicine would conclude six feet apart, masked, and live-streamed.” She described how COVID-19 had challenged the students—along with the rest of the world— to face loss, isolation, loneliness, and uncertainty, and said the past year has brought “a long over-due and still inadequate recognition of the racism and socioeconomic inequality woven into the history and present day of the United States, as manifested by racial violence and the unequal impact of the pandemic.”
Criscione continued, “and yet, here we are. Against the backdrop of these events, we have prevailed in becoming part of a changing narrative of what it means to be a doctor and how medicine should be practiced.” She told her classmates they are “part of an evolving story in which we recognize that health does not begin in an exam or operating room.”
Commencement speaker, Associate Professor of Medicine Onyema Ogbuagu, MBBCh— the principal investigator of the Yale Pfizer COVID vaccine and Remdesivir treatment trials—also noted how COVID-19 both disrupted and shaped the graduates’ lives. “You have all participated in confronting this unprecedented event in human history at the bedside, laboratory or in the community. In confronting COVID, how valuable and precious are the skills you have acquired and that you will deepen and strengthen as your career moves forward.”
COVID-19, he stated, thrust the long-known health disparities in the US conspicuously into view, exposing the weakness in our health care system and public health and political structures, which includes the huge trust gap between our most vulnerable populations that we serve and service and the medical and public health systems and structures.
Most diseases are not just biologic entities or medical syndromes, Ogbuagu explained, “they are embedded in an array of political, economic, environmental/ecological, psychologic, and social aspects that may impact their emergence, acceptance, prevention, treatment and recovery.” He noted that science sometimes will have limited impact if we don’t address these different factors that intersect with the individual and public health and pointed out the need to rebuild and repair trust with the communities that medical providers serve.
Ogbuagu shared advice about the future. “We have to extend our medical practice and specialties and research and think about broader relevance to the community. We have to use our training and expertise to be beacons of truth (even where it costs us), defend science against anti-science, speak truth to power and systems, advocate for the oppressed and neglected, and call out and address injustice and inequity where we see it. We need to be educators within and without our medical systems to the public who lean on us in these kind of times for information, knowledge, and guidance.” While these responsibilities and skill sets may not all have been taught in medical school, he told the graduates that they are vital for their real-world practice and relevance.
Present-day challenges, such as improving health equity and acknowledging bias, were reflected throughout the Class Oath. The Class of 2021 wrote their oath, as is the tradition at YSM.
The ceremony included the presentation of seven faculty awards. Brown poignantly announced that The Bohmfalk Award in the clinical sciences was awarded posthumously to Marjorie Rosenthal, MD, MPH, Department of Pediatrics, who, as Brown described, was a beloved clinician, investigator, teacher, mentor, artist, and writer, who gave so much to the community, but lost her valiant fight against cancer last December. Brown shared comments submitted about Rosenthal, including, “she was known as an exemplary clinician-educator through her work…she modeled how a pediatrician's role was not just as a doctor to children but to the entire family unit, and beyond that, to the community.”
Kareme Dale Alder, MD, Shaunte Butler, MD, and Kareem Jamal Kebaish, MD, class co-presidents, introduced the recipients of two of the awards, which annually are voted on by the graduating class.
Brown also recognized the long, devoted service of Associate Dean for Student Affairs Nancy Angoff, MD, MPH, MEd, and Deputy Dean Emeritus for Education, Richard Belitsky, MD, both of whom are stepping down from their roles soon.
While COVID-19 restrictions prevented family and friends from attending, they were very present in the hearts and minds of those at the ceremony. Brown stated, “to the family members and friends who join us remotely, this moment has come about because of the love, support, and values you have given these graduates. All of us owe you a debt of gratitude.” Ogbuagu, who spoke of his family in his remarks, including sharing that his father had been an assistant professor in the Yale Political Science Department, advised the graduates to work hard, but prioritize family and friends.
The Charles W. Bohmfalk Prize for teaching in the basic sciences: Sarah C. Hull, MD, MBE, assistant professor of medicine (cardiology)
The Charles W. Bohmfalk Prize for teaching in the clinical sciences: posthumously to Marjorie Rosenthal, MD, MPH, who was an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics
The Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award: Jessica Bod, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine
The Alvan R. Feinstein Award for outstanding teaching of clinical skills: Jaideep S. Talwalkar, MD, associate professor of medicine (general medicine)
The Leah M. Lowenstein Award for excellence in the promotion of humane and egalitarian medical education: Jeremy J. Moeller, MD, MSc, associate professor of neurology
The Francis Gilman Blake Award for outstanding teaching of the medical sciences: Stephen Huot, MD, PhD, professor of medicine (nephrology) and associate dean for graduate medical education (chosen by the graduating class)
The Betsy Winters House Staff Award: Jana Christian, MD, a chief resident in the Department of Internal Medicine, and Joseph Lopez, MD, MBA, a fellow in craniofacial surgery in the Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (Chosen by the graduating class, to honor the house staff members who have made the most significant contributions to the education of medical students.)