Even as a newly minted physician-scientist, Dr. Hanan Baker is already a trailblazer. The Fresno, California, native is the youngest graduate in the history of the Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. Program, having enrolled at age 19.
While the COVID-19 pandemic upended the past year, Baker, now 25, said she feels optimistic about entering medicine at this moment. As an observant Muslim whose mother is from Mexico and father is from Iraq, Baker is passionate about increasing diversity in medicine and eager to help effect positive change in a pivotal time.
“COVID-19 has been a much-needed wake-up call for our health care system and community,” said Baker, who on May 20 graduated from Weill Cornell Medical College with her medical degree and will soon start a residency in anesthesiology at the University of Washington. She also earned last year a doctorate in the Physiology, Biophysics and Systems Biology Program from the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences.
“People are more conscious now about climate change, racism and political divides, and how important it is that everyone has access to health care,” she said. “There’s been more focus on mental health and diversity in medicine. The pandemic has really changed the way the public interacts with science and medicine.”
Baker was among 323 expected graduates – 90 medical doctors, 57 Ph.D.s, 42 physician assistants and 134 with master of science degrees – in the Class of 2021 who received their degrees from Weill Cornell Medicine during a digital commencement ceremony. President Martha E. Pollack joined Deans Augustine M.K. Choi and Barbara Hempstead, and Dr. Yoon Kang, senior associate dean for medical education, in remotely conferring degrees on students graduating from Weill Cornell Medical College and Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences.
While the pandemic created a variety of challenges for this year’s graduates, it also revealed opportunities to enrich health care, and the importance of expanding access to care for all communities.
In his address, Choi, the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine and provost for medical affairs of Cornell University, commended the graduating class for its resilience in such a difficult year, and urged the students to lean into this moment.
“You, the Class of 2021, are graduating at a time of intense societal need,” Choi said. “You have so much potential to shape patient care, biomedical research and our health care system so they better serve people, not just in times of crisis but as we look forward to happier times.
“I challenge you to take the lessons of the pandemic to heart and to find the place where you can have the most positive impact.”
Weill Cornell Medicine – Qatar also celebrated its Class of 2021, 41 graduates in total, with an online commencement ceremony May 5, during which they received their medical degrees remotely from Dean Javaid I. Sheikh.
This year’s graduates will now embark on their residencies, fellowships and postdoctoral research positions, and the next phases of their professional careers as physicians, scientists and health care leaders. They do so at a historic time, shaped by the events that have defined their medical educations, Pollack said.
“The questions you will answer in the years ahead, the patients you will treat, the discoveries you will make – all of them will demand what you learned inside your classrooms and labs, and what you learned outside of them,” Pollack said. “They will demand both your skills and your knowledge; your understanding and your humanity.”
Hempstead, dean of the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, also emphasized graduates’ responsibility to communicate the importance of their work to the public – spotlighting discoveries that can have an enormous impact on the health of the population.
“With the respect that comes from entering the most noble of professions, comes the responsibility to communicate, to engage in dialogue, and to educate others,” Hempstead said. “You have become proficient in science communication and we hope that you will put these skills to good use. Engage with the community to listen to their concerns, in the many challenges that unite us.”
Graduate school commencement speaker Dr. Jordana Thibado hopes to do just that, as she embarks on a career in medical communications. As her fellow classmates move on to the next chapter in their lives, she urged them to think back on how they saw themselves when they first started at Weill Cornell.
“If you were like me, you may have been unsure that you belonged,” said Thibado, a native of Arkansas who began her graduate studies in 2016. “Now that you’ve done the work, you know that you were up to the challenge. Our mission now is to pay it forward and provide opportunities, encouragement and mentorship to others as we grow in our leadership roles.”
Thibado, whose research focused on the molecular underpinnings of neuronal communication said that despite the struggles, “our work is ultimately a privilege.”
For Dr. Leora Haber, Weill Cornell Medical College class president and medical school commencement speaker, this year has been a lesson in preparing for the unexpected. While the difficulties it posed could have brought out the worst, she said, “I watched it bring out some of the best as our class came together to support one another and our community.”
“This instinct that our class has – even, or perhaps especially, in times of crisis – to reach out and support family and friends and patients and strangers is special. It’s what makes our class great,” said Haber, who will soon be an internal medicine resident at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “And it’s something we will carry with us to our residency programs in a few weeks when we are scattered across the country.”
Kathryn Inman is associate editor for Weill Cornell Medicine. Elaine Meyer is a writer and editorial consultant for Weill Cornell Medicine.