Medical school class of 2007: Changing the world, one graduate at a time

Mitzi Baker

MD candidate Oscar Gonzalez, left, walks with his classmates June 16 outside the medical school on their way to commencement ceremonies on the Dean’s Lawn. About 1,500 friends, family members and faculty from the School of Medicine attended commencement.

Mitzi Baker

MD candidate Ben Berk with his daughter Annabel, 23 months.

Mitzi Baker

MD candidate and speaker Joshua Spanogle with MD candidate Tracy So before the ceremony.

If any of the medical school graduates at the June 16 commencement ceremony were wondering how much difference one person can make in the world, they got an answer.

A lot, according to the speakers who urged them to leverage their new degrees to promote the health of the planet.

"I urge you, please do what you can to defend science," said Joe Dan Dunn, speaking on behalf of the PhD graduates to a crowd of about 1,500 who wildly applauded his call to action. They cheered uproariously as their friends and loved ones took the stage to claim degrees from the School of Medicine at the commencement ceremony held under the huge white tent on the Dean's Lawn.

In all, 30 graduates received a master's of science degree, 89 were awarded doctorates and 76 claimed a medical degree. Some received multiple degrees.

Before the graduates-to-be came to the front of the stage to receive their doctoral hoods, placed over their heads by members of the faculty, they heard from several speakers urging them to be educators and advocates of science.

Even more than inspiring the next generations of scientists, Dunn told the crowd, "a solid science education is also critical for the next generation of non-scientists, so we can avoid a future in which public health and environmental policy decisions are based on ideology and political agendas rather than scientific data."

Joshua Spanogle, speaking for the graduates earning medical degrees, also called for his fellow medical professionals to reach out to issues beyond the hallways of the hospital.

"The health of health care in this country is not what it should be," he said, citing some bleak statistics. Forty-seven million people are uninsured. Health-care spending totaled more than $2 trillion last year, amounting to $6,700 for every person in this country. Federal research funding has been declining since 2003. And all this is happening at a time when physician involvement in the public arena is at a historic low.

The ways in which a physician can speak up goes beyond politics to include business, art and letters to the editor, he said. "It can even, God forbid, be through fiction," a comment that drew laughter from audience members who knew that Spanogle published his first novel last year and will follow with his second in August.

Philip Pizzo, MD, dean of the medical school, noted that both Dunn and Spanogle had implored the graduates to take action, a cause dear to Pizzo's heart. "As we look forward, we also need to recognize that some physicians have done this in the past," he said, giving a nod to the next speaker, Herbert Abrams, MD, as the epitome of a physician-activist.

Abrams, emeritus professor of radiology, called physician activism "the fourth dimension of medicine"—after the other three tasks of patient care, research and teaching.

He reflected on his own involvement in two physician movements formed to alter national and international policy toward nuclear weapons. He was on the national board of Physicians for Social Responsibility and was founding vice-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

Abrams acknowledged that Stanford medical and graduate students already had partaken in projects in 48 countries on seven continents. But he reminded them that they may lose sight of the impact of activism in the swirl of activity that will be their lives after graduation.

"You are entering a new phase...with huge demands on your time and energy that may limit your vistas as the 24-hour day consumes you," he said. "You may find it difficult to find the time to savor and enjoy the activist experience."

At low moments in his activist career, he said, he would begin to question what one person could really do. He was often uplifted by the words of a 1966 speech by the late Sen. Robert Kennedy in Capetown, South Africa, which Abrams restated at the end of his speech:

"Each time we stand up for an idea, or act to improve the lives of others or strike out against injustice, we send forth a tiny ripple of hope, and...those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."