Graduates urged to embrace lifelong learning, adapt to change at medical school’s 111th commencement

“In a world that encourages increasing specialization, hold on to that sense of being a student,” Stanford Provost Persis Drell told Stanford School of Medicine graduates.

At the School of Medicine's graduation ceremony on June 15, 180 students walked across the stage to receive their diplomas as family and friends cheered them.
Steve Fisch

Embracing the outlook of a “student for life” is the best way to adapt to the inevitable changes, challenges and opportunities ahead, Stanford Provost Persis Drell, PhD, told School of Medicine graduates on June 15.

“The goal of your training was not to fill you up with knowledge and send you out into the world. The goal of your training at Stanford was to help you learn and embrace being a student for a lifetime,” she said. “My advice to you: In a world that encourages increasing specialization, hold on to that sense of being a student.”

A lifelong student herself, Drell is also the James and Anna Marie Spilker Professor in the School of Engineering and a professor of materials science and engineering and of physics. She is the former dean of the Stanford School of Engineering and the former director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford.

Drell spoke at the medical school’s 111thdiploma ceremony, which was held on campus at the newly reopened Li Ka Shing Alumni Lawn. She was introduced by Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, who also spoke to faculty and graduating students and their families and loved ones.

The provost emphasized the importance of being able to adapt to uncertainty and change, and also stressed the graduates’ role in advocating for and restoring trust in science. “Trust must be earned every day, in every interaction, with every person we come in contact with,” she said. “In the coming years, you will have many opportunities to engender public trust and focus attention on the many ways science has improved and will continue to improve our lives.”

‘Another chapter’

The ceremony began with a performance by Dane Johansen, a cellist in the Cleveland Orchestra and sibling of Sara Johansen, a member of the 2019 graduating class. Johansen played the first movement of Bach’s Suite in D Major for unaccompanied cello.

Provost Persis Drell and Dean Lloyd Minor urged the graduates to anticipate changes in their future careers and to treat them as opportunities for growth.
Steve Fisch

In his remarks to the graduates, faculty and guests, Minor (who, like Drell, is a cellist in his spare time) encouraged the graduates to anticipate unpredictable changes in their future, and to experience them as opportunities for growth. “Having an idea of what you want and how to get there is essential, but knowing how to adapt and embrace changes to your plan is just as crucial,” he said. 

Minor described his own “indirect journey,” from finding the spark of his interest as an undergraduate, through 11 years of medical school and on to a successful scientific and clinical career. “I had arrived. I had accomplished the goal of my life’s work,” he said of the satisfaction he took in having his own lab and performing productive research that intersected with his clinical work and vice versa. “What I learned, though, was that I had only just arrived at another chapter.

“Remember,” he added, “veering from the expected course is not a sign that you are lost. It means that you are a pathfinder. So, as you move forward in your careers, I encourage you to follow unmarked trails, explore unfamiliar territory and allow the pursuit of your passion to take you in new directions.”

‘Expression of the human soul’

Graduating speaker Brandon Turner, who received his medical degree with a concentration in informatics and data-driven medicine, reflected on the question of the right response to others’ suffering, and suggested that physicians in particular must re-engage with the world outside of health care.

“What’s ironic is that for a profession devoted to serving others, we spend so much of it isolated in communities of like-minded individuals where everyone speaks this same language,” Turner said. “Secluded, it can be easy to forget why we do this at all, and to rediscover that, I believe we must leave these places, we must look outside.”

Nancy Nkansah-Mahaney was accompanied by her two children as she received her medical degree.
Steve Fisch

Graduating speaker Alejandro Schuler, who received his PhD in biomedical informatics, encouraged the audience to consider the value of science for its own sake, and that, to be truly revolutionary, we must let old ideas go.

“What I’m talking about is a science that has value beyond dollars and cents. We’ve spent years on these doctorates because we know that science is, like art, an expression of the human soul,” Schuler said. “We need science for the same reason we need murals, ballet and film. If, as Carl Sagan said, we’re a way for the universe to know itself, then science is nothing less than cosmic introspection.”

This year, 180 students walked across the stage — several with babies in arms or children by their side — to receive their diplomas. An additional 59 students met their graduation requirements over the course of the 2018-19 academic year. Of the 239 total students graduating, 88 earned MD degrees, 98 earned MS degrees and 69 PhDs, with 17 earning dual degrees such as MS/MD, MS/PhD or MD/PhD.  

Nancy Nkansah-Mahaney celebrated with 17 members of her family and friends who traveled from Ghana, West Africa, Florida, Virginia and Ohio. She walked the stage with her kids, Maya, 6, and Gavin, 5. After working for five years to earn her MD, she’ll go on to a yearlong internship at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara, California, after which she’ll head to Johns Hopkins for her residency in dermatology. And she’ll carry on a project she started while at Stanford: an online platform to connect undergraduate students with mentors and professional training so that they can earn graduate degrees, too.

Brian Boursiquot was joined by his two younger brothers and parents, who flew in from New York and Los Angeles to see him graduate. For Boursiquot, who earned a master’s degree in epidemiology along with his MD, commencement was a day to reconnect with his classmates before departing for a three-year internal medicine residency at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. “Toward the end of med school, a lot of people end up having very different schedules,” he said. “So it’s really nice to be together with all your classmates again, and to see everyone before we all go off to residency. …It’s been great, and it’s just a culmination of all the hard work we put in.”

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