Dr. Christopher Bourne’s journey to Weill Cornell Medicine’s 2023 Commencement was defined by two of his passions: science and social activism – both informed profoundly by the events of 2020.
Dr. Bourne graduated May 18 with a doctorate in immunology from Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences. But three years ago, when the COVID pandemic struck, his doctoral research, focusing on harnessing the immune system to fight cancer, came to a halt. Then that May, George Floyd was killed by police, igniting a social justice movement across the country.
Compelled to get involved, he chaired the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences’ inaugural Social Justice and Anti-Racism Task Force, which advises institutional leaders on how to make campus more diverse, equitable and inclusive. He also joined Black in Cancer, a group formed in 2020 to address the underrepresentation of Black scientists in cancer research and the barriers Black communities face in cancer screening and care.
“I’m proud I was able to get involved with DEI efforts on campus and off,” Dr. Bourne, a New Jersey native, said. “And that I had a positive impact on students around me, encouraging them to get involved in these initiatives.”
Dr. Bourne was among 380 expected graduates – 104 medical doctors, 86 with doctorates and 190 with Master of Science degrees – in the Class of 2023 who received their degrees from Weill Cornell Medicine during the institution’s annual commencement ceremony at Carnegie Hall.
Cornell President Martha E. Pollack joined Deans Francis Lee and Barbara Hempstead in conferring degrees on students graduating from Weill Cornell Medical College and Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences. The atmosphere was celebratory, as graduates crossed the Perelman Stage to receive their diplomas in front of an audience filled with cheering family and friends.
In recognition of Weill Cornell Medicine’s 125th anniversary, Pollack delved into the history of medicine, noting that it is “a deeply human history: a history driven by the desire to find better ways to care, to protect, to cure.
“Medicine today, with all of its human challenges, has advanced beyond all recognition from what it was when it was first taught at Cornell,” she said. “And that progress has come about because of institutions like this one, and graduates like those we celebrate today: The generations of students who, like you, spent years mastering the knowledge of their time and then committed to moving that knowledge forward throughout their careers.”
In his address to the Class of 2023, Dr. Lee, interim dean for Weill Cornell Medicine and interim provost for medical affairs of Cornell University, commended the graduates on their accomplishments and highlighted their potential to change the health care landscape.
“The combination of your talent and training makes it possible for us to achieve excellence in patient care, scientific discovery and medical education – both here in New York City, and around the world,” he said. “You have studied alongside some of the best clinicians, researchers and educators in the world and now you are among their ranks.”
Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar also celebrated its 42 graduates in the Class of 2023 during a commencement ceremony on May 9, when they received their Cornell medical degrees from Pollack with Dr. Lee in attendance.
With their formal education complete, the Weill Cornell Medicine graduates now embark on their residencies, fellowships and postdoctoral positions, as they advance to careers as physicians, scientists and leaders in health care.
Dr. Hempstead, dean of Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, spoke to the Class of 2023 about the critical nature of being adept at “communicating breathtaking discoveries” to general audiences.
“I am asking you to ‘be the spark,’” she said. “To convey your excitement, your curiosity and the promise of science to this broad lay community, as they are the individuals who ultimately need to support the research that will benefit patients.”
Dr. Bourne, who also served as this year’s graduate school student commencement speaker, spoke of the privileges of this educational achievement, which “endows each of us with power.”
“We have a responsibility to use our power to encourage others, fight against injustices, advocate for those who are vulnerable, and pay forward the generosity we have received to future generations,” said Dr. Bourne, who will soon start a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer immunology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Medical school student commencement speaker Dr. Tahj Blow, who this summer will begin a combined internal medicine and psychiatry residency program at Emory School of Medicine, explored the question of what actually makes a physician.
“Through our time in these walls and wards, I believe that we have learned the most meaningful care requires empathy over empiricism,” he said. “A willingness to listen more than an eagerness to act.”
For Dr. Heba Shaaban, commencement is particularly meaningful, as she has always felt a connection to Weill Cornell Medicine. When she was young her father was treated for cancer at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, an experience which partly informed her decision to choose medicine. During her undergraduate years, she continued to follow that passion, working in Dr. Christopher Mason’s lab before enrolling at Weill Cornell Medical College. This summer she’ll be back at the hospital to start her residency in internal medicine.
“It feels like I’ve come full circle,” she said. “Today represents the culmination of almost a decade of hard work and sacrifice. Knowing that I have dedicated so much of my life to learning medicine and now I’ll be putting that into use in the clinical world, helping patients, is exciting and overwhelming, and I know will be incredibly fulfilling.”