Intellectually, Dr. Alex Robles understood that he was graduating from Weill Cornell Medical College, the culmination of four years of hard work and dedication. But the accomplishment didn't truly hit him until he heard his name called and his family cheering as he walked across the stage at the iconic Carnegie Hall to receive his diploma.
Dr. Robles, who will soon begin a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, recalled a quote often attributed to the great scientist, Sir Isaac Newton — "I am only where I am because I stood on the shoulders of giants" — to sum up how grateful he feels for his degree, awarded on May 28.
"I have to thank my family and all my closest friends and every single person whose helped me along the journey — all of the faculty, all of the teachers I had in high school and college," he said. "Everyone has made a contribution to where I am today."
Dr. Robles joined 279 of his classmates — 138 fellow medical doctors, 69 Ph.D.s, 40 physician assistants, and 33 with master of science degrees —to celebrate graduation. Bouquets of red and white flowers lined the Perelman Stage as Cornell University President David Skorton joined with Deans Laurie H. Glimcher and Gary Koretzky, and Dr. Stephen Scott, associate dean for student affairs from Qatar, in conferring degrees on students graduating from Weill Cornell Medical College, Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar and Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences.
=With their education behind them, the graduates, including 42 doctors from Qatar, will begin their residencies, postdocs, fellowships and other phases of their careers. But no matter where they go or what they do, Dr. Glimcher said, they need to remember what inspired them to pursue a career in medicine in the first place — making a difference in another human being's life.
"Regardless of whether we're a clinician, a scientist, a health professional, a patient or someone else, we're all engaged in writing the stories of our lives," said Dr. Glimcher, the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell. "And ultimately, these are stories of discovery — stories of scientific breakthroughs, stories of courage in the face of adversity, stories about ourselves and the kind of people we want to be. The one message I hope you take with you from your time at Weill Cornell is to keep the patient at the center of everything you do. Make that the driving force in your story."
The stories these new Weill Cornell Medical College graduates tell will undoubtedly detail their passion for medicine, loyalty to patients and devotion to service. These are the students who will lead healthcare's transformation, drive national dialogue and realize public policy changes, Dr. David Skorton said in his final commencement address as president of Cornell University.
"Just as your Weill Cornell degrees will open countless doors to professional opportunities now and throughout your professional lives," President Skorton said, "your status as Weill Cornell graduates will give you credibility and influence in the public sector... We know that you can make a difference — in the lives of your patients, in increasing the store of biomedical knowledge and in educating the public in ways that can change the world. We're counting on you!"
And these stories should be filled with ingenuity and reflect the courage to take scientific risks—even with the possibility of failure.
"Graduate education emphasizes learning a process that allows you to unleash your unique, creative potential," said Dr. Koretzky, dean of Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences. "Your thesis work is a reflection of that creativity. Each of you has accomplished a body of scholarship that has taught the world things we would not have otherwise appreciated. I hope that along the way your mentors have inspired you so that you will continue to aspire to meet that creative potential as you embark on a career of lifelong learning and discovery."
But discovery can't happen in a vacuum, said Dr. Igor Dikiy, the graduate school's commencement speaker. The next chapters he and his classmates write will illustrate the power of teamwork, and how new scientific insights, no matter how small they seem, impact the greater whole.
"Now that we've received our degrees, I urge you, fellow graduates, to look back at the broader implications of your work," Dr. Dikiy said. "Each of us has contributed to the sum total of scientific knowledge. And that's pretty amazing."
While all the discoveries, patients and experiences these new physicians and scientists encounter will add to their stories, the body of work will always be unfinished. There is always something more to achieve, medical college commencement speaker Dr. Alec Swinburne said. Physicians must continue to strive for an ideal that has no finite end.
"I know that for many of us, we look around today in the audience and we see a number of role models — prototypes for our careers. People who are already the type of doctors we want to be," he said. "These people are the role models we look to not because they're finished products. …They continuously strive to become a more perfect doctor — to be sharper, to be kinder, and to be more efficient in their care, more generous in their teaching, and to be more human every day."
Although science continues to change, he added, "this ideal of doctoring that we've observed and shared and made our own — this ideal will last."
Dr. Patrice Cohen, who had a large family presence at the commencement, including her mother from Trinidad and others from Philadelphia and Brooklyn, was ecstatic to have reached this important milestone.
"Today feels unbelievable," Dr. Cohen said after the ceremony. "I still have goosebumps."
Asked to recall the most memorable moment of her past four years, she couldn't pinpoint just one. But her work with patients — especially those who were reaching the end of their lives — stand out, she said. She liked talking to them about their lives and their varied perspectives on the world, and always asked what traits they believed doctors need to be good at their jobs.
"One patient told me that adaptability is the most important trait for a doctor and I think that's really true," she said.
While all of the students will have to adapt to what's next, in Dr. Cohen's case that means pursuing a career in radiation oncology. She'll spend a transitional year at Lincoln Medical Center in the Bronx and then move on to four years at NYU Langone Medical Center in her specialty.
"I'm looking forward to putting to use the skills that we learned at Weill Cornell," she said. "I'm really, really excited."