Ann McKee Urges Graduates to Speak Up for the Voiceless

“Tell the hard truth, and tell it over and over and over, until people listen and it is heard”

Ann McKee, a William Fairfield Warren professor, described the path that led her to become a physician and scientist and how she came to research chronic traumatic encephalopathy during her address at the School of Medicine MD/PhD Convocation May 16.

Ann McKee is no stranger to accolades and honors. The William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and director of BU’s CTE Center has been lauded for her pioneering research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive, untreatable neurological condition associated with repetitive blows to the head. She was named Bostonian of the Year by the Boston Globe Magazine in 2017, honored as one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2018, and was elected to the National Academy of Medicine, also in 2018. But an invitation from the School of Medicine Class of 2019 to deliver its Convocation address left her “surprised, thrilled, and a little bit terrified.”

“I cannot imagine a greater honor than to be asked by the students for words to carry them into the future,” she said to the 206 graduating PhD and MD students at the Track & Tennis Center ceremony May 16. The invitation led her to look back at her life, she said, and realize “how much medicine and science have meant to me.”

A MED professor of neurology and pathology, McKee told the crowd of graduates, family, and friends that she wanted to become a doctor after tagging along with her brother, a physician in the Indian Health Services providing care to people who had very little. “I wanted to do that, too,” she said. “I wanted to make a difference—I wanted to make the world a better place.”

She recounted the challenges and backlash facing a newly minted woman doctor in the 1970s. Patients would ask if she was the nurse and when she told them she was the doctor, they would respond: “OK, but what does the doctor say?” The bigger problem with being a female physician, was “much more insidious, much more devastating: the real problem being a female in medicine was the marginalization and diminishment of your opinion. People decide your value based on how you look, and if you were female—at least back then—you didn’t look right.”

McKee described the moment she first encountered CTE in the brain of a famous boxer and how she became immediately fascinated with this “unique and mysterious disease.” She told of the eureka moment several years later, when she saw CTE in a 45-year-old football player. “I realized that CTE from football looked just like CTE from boxing—and I knew immediately this was a very big deal…I knew immediately that this was enormously important.”

The School of Medicine Class of 2019 at MED’s MD/PhD Convocation ceremony. Photo by David Keough/BUSM Communications

As faculty and students in colorful regalia listened, McKee described being asked to testify before Congress about the dangers of football, specifically the danger of CTE, after examining the brains of 10 football players, 6 of them NFL players, with the disease.

“This was the pivotal moment of my life,” she told the rapt audience. “It was my moment of reckoning, a moment that forced me to believe in myself, to believe in my knowledge, to speak up and state the hard truth as I knew it.” Over the next 12 years, she and colleagues accumulated hundreds more brains, and she remained focused on the work ahead, she said, ignoring the dissent being voiced about the lasting effects of concussions and mild head trauma.

“I was compelled to speak up, speak up for the voiceless, speak up for the patients and families who suffered and the patients and families who would suffer if nothing were done,” McKee said. She added that efforts by her and her colleagues have led to changed policies and awareness about repetitive head trauma in sports and military service.

In closing, the veteran researcher offered some hard-earned advice to the graduating doctors and scientists: “Believe in yourself. People will judge you. Don’t let those people define you. Believe in yourself and push forward. Work hard. Success isn’t a matter of luck—know what you want and go after it. Tell the truth. Let the truth be your guide, even if it is uncomfortable, unwelcome, and inconvenient. Tell the truth even if it’s hard to do and people don’t want to hear it. Stand up and speak the truth for your patients, because they will not have your knowledge or your power. Be the voice for the voiceless. Tell the hard truth, and tell it over and over and over, until people listen and it is heard. Make the world a better place.”

MED’s 2019 PhD student speaker Timothy Norman (MED’19) (left) and MD student speaker Michael Ghio (MED’19). Photos by Cydney Scott

Student speakers focus on the next chapter

Two student speakers also addressed the crowd. The PhD speaker was Timothy Norman, Jr. (MED’19), who earned a doctorate in molecular and translational medicine and became the father of two children while doing it.

“During all this, we have written papers and grants, given countless presentations and forged strong relationships,” Norman said. “This is the end of an important chapter in our lives, but also the beginning of a bright future for each and every one of us.” Following graduation, he will be joining BU’s Center for Regenerative Medicine as a postdoctoral fellow.

While earning his degree, MD class speaker Michael Ghio (MED’19) was founder of a student professionalism and ethics group, cochair of a program that mentors high school students interested in careers in science and medicine, and a volunteer at a shelter for women and children in the South End. “Your success cannot exist without failure, just as good cannot exist without evil,” Ghio told his fellow graduates. “On those days ahead when you will go home feeling like a failure, days that you feel isolated or that you aren’t cut out for this field, remember: this means you have also succeeded, that peers who you can rely on surround you, and that you are destined for the success you work so hard to cultivate. Celebrate your successes and cherish your failure, and forever value this amazing ride we have all been on together.”

In June, Ghio will begin a residency in general surgery at Tulane University in New Orleans. 

This BU Today story was written by Lisa Brown and John O’Rourke.