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Sloan-Kettering president urges UMass Worcester graduates to ‘appreciate the process of flux’


Commencement Day 2010 

The 37th Commencement exercises of the University of Massachusetts Worcester went off with nary a hitch Sunday afternoon, June 6, as 205 degrees were awarded under the big white tent that had dominated the campus green all week. The early morning rain made for a somewhat soggy processional, but otherwise could not dilute the excitement of the day or the sense of pride at the graduates’ accomplishments.

“It has been a privilege for our faculty to have had the opportunity to educate and mentor you during your time on our campus and at our clinical affiliates,” Chancellor Michael F. Collins told the graduates. “As health care reform sweeps the nation, we are pleased that you will be the ones to whom we entrust the future of science and health care.”

Keynote speaker and honorary degree recipient Harold E. Varmus, MD, former head of the National Institutes of Health and president and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, likened this stage of the graduates’ lives to a biological or material phase shift, noting that “materials stay the same but, through pressure and temperature changes, they can take on new form and function.” He urged them to “appreciate the process of flux.”

Chancellor Collins opened the ceremony with a nod to the Worcester Technical High School students who created UMass Worcester’s new ceremonial mace, which Linda Sagor, MD, MPH, clinical associate professor of pediatrics and this year’s recipient of the University of Massachusetts President’s Award for Public Service, carried at the head of the march.

More than 3,000 family and friends filled the tent—which was equipped with half a dozen video monitors to ensure there wasn’t a bad seat in the house—to witness the awarding of degrees to the graduates and to applaud three honorary degree recipients who have displayed notable dedication to their communities, medicine and medical education. Although each graduate can tell a different story of how he or she arrived at this moment, all would agree that the day’s formalities, sprinkled with jokes, touching moments and more than a few infants and toddlers carried across the stage by graduating parents, served as a fitting culmination to years of hard work and determination.

Graduate School of Nursing student Dawn Carpenter told her classmates to remember the UMass Worcester culture of support and dedication to patients, and to spread that culture wherever they go. Trevor Morin told his peers in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences that while life may or may not be fair, they need to take a helping hand when it is offered and—just as importantly—offer a hand when it is needed. Timothy Lin reminded School of Medicine students to continuously improve their service to patients, the community and humanity, and to remember the close camaraderie of their years at UMass Worcester.

Dr. Varmus described his own phase shifts, from his “never-ending adolescence” to “20 years of spurning administrative responsibility so I might focus on research” to becoming one of the most influential leaders of contemporary medicine. Preparing to enter his own new phase—as director of the National Cancer Institute, a post to which President Obama appointed him in May—Varmus reflected on three areas that warrant understanding and consideration as graduates imagine their own paths:

  • Global health and the increased attention paid to infectious diseases that affect developing nations and the underlying infrastructure issues in those countries that hamper the ability to better manage public health;
  • Publication practices and the speed at which news of scientific advances can now be made available through the Internet and the impact on how scientists share information;
  • Policies relating to research and health-care funding by a government and president who embrace the promise of research, but are distracted by wars, economic turmoil and an ecological catastrophe caused by an oil spill.

Varmus promised the graduates—whom he described as currently transitioning from the fluid phase of student to the solid phase of research and medical professional—that no matter the path they choose, it will be long and there will be changes in pressure and temperature that allow them to shift phases over and over.

Varmus received an honorary degree in recognition of his foundational contributions to biomedical research and his commitment to excellence in scientific inquiry and clinical care worldwide. Mary C. DeFeudis, a longtime local philanthropist, received an honorary degree in recognition of her enthusiastic support for the academic health sciences center and her abiding love for her community and its residents. An honorary degree was also awarded to Michael Horgan, former chief executive officer and registrar of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), for his considerable contributions to medical education and international educational partnerships.

The Graduate School of Nursing conferred 37 master of science degrees; four doctor of nursing practice degrees and two PhDs. The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences conferred six master of science degrees in its new clinical investigation program, as well as 55 PhDs. And the School of Medicine awarded six MD/PhDs and 95 MDs.

Throughout the ceremony, staff kept an eye on the weather and followed forecasts of a severe storm front moving in from Western Massachusetts, threatening thunder and lightning and an abrupt end to the festivities. Time and Mother Nature were supportive, however, and every graduate, from Scott James Atkins right down to Anthony Martin Zizza III, enjoyed a long-sought moment on the stage to receive a hood and diploma and a hearty handshake.

“Let the record show,” the Chancellor declared in closing the ceremony, “that despite the ominous weather forecast, from 11:45 to 1:50, not one drop of rain fell on our 37th Commencement exercises of the University of Massachusetts Worcester.”