May 31, 2013 — Addressing graduates at the 2013 Commencement Ceremony on May 30, 2013, HSPH Dean Julio Frenk spoke of how, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, HSPH faculty, alumni, and students contributed “to what is now recognized as an extraordinary example of crisis response.”
That response, Frenk said, came from “impeccable preparation.” He said he hopes the preparation the graduates received at HSPH “kicks in” in the same way that training kicked in for first responders to the Marathon tragedy. “Whether your goal is to combat infectious diseases, reform health systems, or respond to emergencies, preparation is essential to success,” he said.
At the ceremony, held on a hot and humid afternoon before an overflow crowd in a tent in Kresge courtyard, 558 degrees were awarded: 31 Doctors of Philosophy, 2 Doctors of Public Health, 69 Doctors of Science, 280 Masters of Public Health, 167 Masters of Science, and 9 Masters of Arts. Graduates came from 74 countries and from 30 U.S. states. More than 56% of the graduates were women. At a festive reception the evening before Commencement, awards were presented to 13 students, nine faculty, and two staff members.
Time of transformation
Frenk told the graduates that they share a distinction: Their class is graduating in 2013, on the cusp of HSPH’s Centennial year. The School opened its doors during a time of transformation and the same is true today, Frenk said. Disease can spread quickly in today’s increasingly interconnected world; the globalization of fast food, smoking, and pollution has led to soaring rates of chronic conditions; health care is costly and unevenly distributed; and, with health care systems ever more complex, “the need for outstanding public health leaders to run them effectively has never been so great.”
As an example of “world-changing work” by an HSPH alumnus, Frenk cited Donald Hopkins, MPH ’70, currently vice president for health programs at the Carter Center. Hopkins, who received a Harvard University honorary degree earlier in the day, played a key role in the global elimination of smallpox and has worked tirelessly in recent years to eradicate a scourge of Africa’s rural poor, Guinea worm disease. Since Hopkins began working on the painful waterborne disease, cases have dropped from 3.5 million to less than 600 annually.
Frenk stressed the importance of leadership in achieving public health progress—in having “knowledge that is both broad and deep, the ability to articulate a personal vision, and interpersonal skills such as collaboration and persuasion.”
He also urged graduates to continue learning throughout their lives. “It used to be that education was seen as a sort of tunnel—you entered on one end and emerged—finished!—on the other. Today, the model is different. We have come to see that education must be a never-ending process,” he said. He urged the graduates to take advantage of HSPH courses through edX, the online learning platform launched by Harvard and MIT in 2012; by participating in webcasts from HSPH’s state-of-the-art Leadership Studio; or by taking a course from HSPH’s continuing education programs. And he noted that soon they might also serve as “virtual tutors” for other students studying online.
A “uniquely remarkable career”
The Commencement address was delivered by Larry Brilliant, president and CEO of the Skoll Global Threats Fund. Introducing Brilliant—a physician, epidemiologist, philanthropist, and technologist—Frenk said his current role is just one of many in “a uniquely remarkable career.” Brilliant helped run the World Health Organization’s successful smallpox eradication program in Southeast Asia; established the Seva Foundation, an international NGO whose programs have given back sight to more than 3 million blind people in 20 countries; served as CEO for four technology companies; and headed Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org. Time magazine named Brilliant one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2008.
Brilliant told graduates that he first felt called to a life promoting social justice when he heard the Rev. Martin Luther King speak at the University of Michigan in 1962. Brilliant went on to what he called a “different” career path: He marched in support of civil rights and social change and against the Vietnam War; joined a commune; traveled on “hippie buses” from London to Kathmandu; and spent two years in a Himalayan ashram.
As a young medical resident, Brilliant and his friends organized a union for interns and residents that went on strike for better patient care—and, in short order, “the hospital caved in and agreed to our demands,” Brilliant said. He said the “fire of the battle” between idealistic young doctors and the medical establishment led to the creation of many new departments in schools of public health, focused on areas such as preventive medicine, social medicine, and epidemiology.
“Nothing could be more noble”
Brilliant talked about working with his mentor—William Foege, MPH ’65, epidemiologist and former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control—on the fight to eradicate smallpox. Based on Foege’s strategy of surveillance and containment, he said, 150,000 health workers searched for every case of smallpox in the world to put a ring of immunity around it. “We made more than one billion house calls,” Brilliant said. From Foege, Brilliant learned to take personal satisfaction in “watching the epidemic curve drop” instead of watching changes in a child’s fever chart.
In October 1977, in Bangladesh, Brilliant witnessed the very last human smallpox infection. “I cried like a baby, I felt so honored to be a small part of it,” he said. From that point on, he knew he would always be a public health worker. “No matter how hard, no matter the long odds, nothing could be more noble,” he said.
Brilliant said he hopes that other diseases—polio and Guinea worm—will follow smallpox into “the dustbin of history.” He said he also hopes to “end pandemics in your lifetimes.”
By choosing public health, Brilliant told graduates, they are “part of the warp and weft of social change.” He quoted San Francisco radio reporter Skoop Nisker, who ended news broadcasts during the 1960s by saying, “The news today is bad. But if you don’t like today’s news, go out and make some of your own.” Brilliant urged HSPH graduates to do the same. “From today on, make your own news,” he said. “The narrative of history is in your hands.”
Become a trailblazer
Candy Liang, the student speaker, received an MPH in health policy and management. After college, working at a global strategy consulting firm, Liang focused on public health issues such as helping broaden patient access to life-saving drugs. At HSPH, Liang was active in Project Antares, a partnership between HSPH and the Harvard Business School that identifies high-impact public health interventions in a framework of sustainable social entrepreneurship. She also helped improve operations at a telemedicine company in India so that it can provide high quality primary care to urban low-income residents in northern India and was a student ambassador for HSPH’s Office of Diversity. After graduation, she will work for Deloitte Consulting in New York on improving public health through innovation and entrepreneurship.
At last year’s commencement, Liang said, Dean Frenk challenged graduates to be trailblazers—and she outlined what she and her fellow students learned at HSPH to make that happen.
They learned to set ambitious goals, she said. They signed on to the World Cancer Declaration to lower not just one, but 11 types of cancer. They worked to change the culture of operating rooms to reduce post-surgical complications. They learned to collaborate on numerous projects, such as this year’s Spring Challenge aimed at reducing bicycle accidents in Boston. And they learned about leadership.
“I learned it not only through lectures and case studies, but mostly through you, my classmates,” said Liang. She cited the courage of fellow student Mary Sando, MPH ’13, in leaving behind two young children in Tanzania to attend HSPH, and the dedication of Elisabeth Malin, SM ’13, in returning to school after the death of her mother.
Elsbeth Kalenderian, MPH ’89, delivered the alumni greetings. She is president of the HSPH Alumni Association and has had extensive experience in the healthcare, human services, and public health fields. Kalenderian currently serves as Chief of Quality at the Harvard Dental Center and Chair of the Oral Health Policy and Epidemiology Department at Harvard Dental School, where she is an associate professor.
Kalenderian listed some of the accomplishments of HSPH alumni—such as helping in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquakes in both Chile and Haiti—and called on the new graduates to take their HSPH training “to wherever you decide to explore, and become the super men and women that this world needs.” She added, “Prove me right when I say you can change the world for the better.”
– Karen Feldscher
photos: Kent Dayton, J.D. Levine