The advice to Baylor College of Medicine’s 2021 graduates? Be ready to take the unexpected forks in the road that will inevitably come along, because they can turn into opportunity.
Perhaps no other class is more ready to heed these words than this year’s group of graduates, who during their training have faced a major hurricane in Houston and, now, a global pandemic.
The 2021 Commencement Ceremony was held Thursday, May 27, at the Baylor City Event Center. Graduates included 80 Ph.D. and six M.S. students in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, 200 students in the School of Medicine, and eight in the School of Health Professions’ Genetic Counseling Program.
The pandemic has made clear the inequities that exist in society and in healthcare, with individuals and countries with the fewest resources being the hardest hit by COVID-19, said Dr. Paul Klotman, president, CEO and executive dean of Baylor College of Medicine. The Class of 2021, however, is well equipped to make an impact on public health and breakthrough science through the depth of their experience.
“You are experts in disaster. By training in the middle of a pandemic and by experiencing Hurricane Harvey, you have had the best opportunity to understand the importance of both science and medicine. You have seen that we healthcare workers and scientists are truly on the front lines, and medicine and science have brought us treatments and vaccines in record time,” Klotman said.
“You have been lucky enough to be in the middle of it all,” he continued. “My guess is that these experiences will be the most formative in your professional careers for the rest of your lives. And how lucky we are that we can stand here now together because of the advances of the past year.”
Additional insight to graduates was imparted by commencement speaker, Dr. Carl June, a physician-scientist at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania whose pioneering work is widely recognized a turning point in the field of cancer immunology.
Quoting baseball great and funnyman Yogi Berra, June told the graduates, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” His own forks in the road have shaped his career in unexpected ways, starting in the early 1970s when he drew a low draft number for the Vietnam War and abandoned plans to attend Stanford University to major in chemistry. Instead, he joined the Navy, attended the Naval Academy and joined the premed program, setting his future career path.
Another fork came when he was unable to work in his chosen specialty of leukemia but rather spent a decade studying HIV/AIDS, during which time his lab developed the first robust culture system to grow human T cells. He eventually applied these HIV studies to cancer patients and found that his lab had a major advantage in cell engineering. They used a version of the HIV virus as a Trojan Horse to get based the T cell’s defense system. These were the first CAR T cells, or Chimeric Antigen Receptor T cells, named after a creature from Greek mythology.
His lab later developed the first gene therapy to be approved by the FDA, a CAR T cell called CTL019, for the treatment of leukemia. CAR T cell treatment was eventually allowed in pediatric leukemia patients, where June faced another unexpected turn when one of his clinical trial patients became critically ill after being infused with CAR T cells. Her blood worked revealed dramatically elevated levels of a cytokine called IL-6. June knew from experience with his own daughter who has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, also called JIA, that a new therapy was being used to treat elevated IL-6 in JIA patients. He suggested his pediatric leukemia trial patient receive the same drug, tocilizumab. She began to improve rapidly, and this led to a new understanding of a violent reaction to CAR T cell therapy that is now called a Cytokine Storm. This storm occurs in nearly all patients who respond to therapy, but not in those who do not.
Forks in the road may not always lead to success, June cautioned, but they should still be taken.
“Know that life is not fair, and that you will fail often,” he told the graduates. “But if you take some risks, you will take advantage of those challenges and never give up. If you do those things, then you will leave the world a far better one that the one we have today.”
The 2021 Commencement Ceremony also included the presentation of Baylor’s Distinguished Leadership Award to Dr. Bob McLaughlin, dean of the School of Health Professions, who will retire from this role on June. 1. Mclaughlin was recognized for his leadership at Baylor and in the community.
Baylor provided a series of opportunities that allowed him to apply his craft and passions in his professional and personal life and in the community, McLaughlin said. Along the way, he learned valuable lessons about leadership. At its core, his leadership principal is a simple one: “People are easier to lead if they trust that you’re taking them where they want to go. More importantly, this makes them more likely to persist when the going gets tough, and to complete the journey even when I step aside.”