MD, PhD Graduates Encouraged to ‘Lean In’

Group of MD grads in robes Typically MD, PhD and MD/PhD graduates are cheered on with plenty of pomp and circumstance by family and friends who gather to celebrate their achievements. While the setting looked different this year, the cause for celebration and cheer remained the same.

A virtual ceremony was held again this year to maintain safe physical distancing. Noting that it was not what the School had planned, BU Medical Campus Provost and BUSM Dean Karen Antman, MD, addressed graduates in a prerecorded ceremony, available here.

“Commencement is really only the end of the beginning of your education as a physician. Today your diploma is the credential that grants you entry to the next stage of your education – your residency or post-doctoral fellowship and then, life-long learning,” she said.

Deborah Stearns-Kurosawa, PhD, ad interim Associate Provost and Dean of Graduate Medical Sciences, then offered her congratulations to the Class of 2021.

“On behalf of all the faculty and staff in GMS, I applaud you on your achievement,” she said. “Getting a PhD degree is hard enough with all the stress and anxiety. Accomplishing that life milestone in the midst of a global pandemic with all the restrictions you faced is simply humbling.”

BUSM conferred 166 medical degrees: nine MD/PhDs, three MD/MBAs and 154 MDs, as well as 28 PhD degrees, with 24 students earning Latin honors – 16 cum laude, six magna cum laude and two summa cum laude.

Carlo Pasco in red robe at white podium giving speech surounded by masked faculty seated in a physically distanced manner
Carlo Pasco

Carlo Pasco, the selected MD student speaker, will become a pediatric resident at Los Angeles Children’s Hospital in June. While at BUSM, he studied the outcomes of narrative medicine training on student communication, reflective writing and empathy. He also was the head writer for the first year Skit Night and served on the fourth-year electives sub-committee.

Pasco reflected on giving a speech to the class at the end of his first year, and noted that in the three years that followed, the class has gathered countless stories to tell.

“What’s interesting to me, however, are those stories we don’t tell,” he said. “Stories of failure, shame, embarrassment.” So, Pasco reached out to fellow classmates and asked about their failures.

One student described the fear of failing multiple practice NBME exams, but then took the exam and passed with a score they were proud of. Another student recounted wanting to match with a residency program near their home, but matched somewhere new and ultimately found strength in the quote: “You will bloom where you are planted.”

“I don’t mention these failures to make the rest of you nervous about us entering the workforce,” Pasco said. “My goal was instead to demonstrate that people fail all the time, and in every stage of life. The next year of our lives, especially intern year, will be rife with failure. We may miss a lab value, hesitate during a procedure, forget an obscure factoid that we swear we knew from Step 1. But this is all part of the learning process and the reason why working on a team is so crucial.”

Samantha Shelton in red robe behind white podium giving her speech surrounded by masked faculty seated physically distanced
Samantha Shelton

Samantha Shelton was selected as the PhD student speaker. At Boston University, she studied the effects of Zika virus infection in neural precursor cells and microcephaly in a model of direct brain infection. After graduation, she is going on to become a virology scientist at PureTech Health.

“Over these past few years, we’ve gained the confidence we need to know that we can do hard things, even when it is scary, even when things don’t go as planned, and when the only thing that remains consistent is that we can rely on ourselves to get through it,” she said. “Let’s use our newfound confidence, knowledge, and privilege to make the world a better place than how we found it.”

In keeping with tradition, the graduating class selected their commencement speaker. This year’s invited speaker was Sadiqa Kendi, MD, FAAP, CPST, Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Division Chief of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Boston University and Boston Medical Center.

Dr. Kendi currently serves on the American Academy of Pediatrics Executive Committee for the Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention, which develops recommendations and policies for reducing childhood injuries nationwide. She also is a Bloomberg American Health Initiative Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“If I had to identify a theme for this year, your last year of medical school, I would identify ‘discomfort,’” said Dr. Kendi, noting the COVID-19 pandemic, George Floyd’s death, inhumane treatment of immigrating families and more. “This year, you had to lean in to discomfort.”

She then spoke about her experience fighting invasive breast cancer, undergoing months of treatment and feeling that she was not in control of her life.

“I had to lean into the discomfort of cancer, the fear of pain, the fear of the unknown, so that I could survive, and thrive and be here to talk to you today,” she said. She added that people can choose to lean in and grow from this feeling of discomfort, or they can choose comfort.

“I encourage you to lean in, and make the choice to grow,” Dr. Kendi said. “It’s okay to cry, it’s okay to struggle, it’s okay to misstep. And you will – that’s part of the next step of your training. But don’t stop there. Push yourself to learn from it. Push yourself to be better because of it.”

In lieu of hooding students in-person, this year’s ceremony included slideshows of the MD Class of 2021 as well as a video montage of PhD students’ dissertations. The ceremony concluded with the Hippocratic Oath.

“You first took this oath at your white coat ceremony when the faculty welcomed you to the study of medicine,” Dean Antman said. “Today, at your graduation, the faculty welcomes you to the practice of medicine.”