During their studies, health professions students customarily gain a deep understanding of caring for patients and communities. For the class of 2021, navigating their education during a global pandemic brought additional personal insights. This year, graduates are beginning their careers shaped by new strengths, including resilience and a commitment to equity.

On Friday, May 7, the Doctor of Medicine Graduate Recognition Ceremony was held virtually for only the second time in the school’s 114-year history. For the MD class of 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic brought changes to several parts of their medical school experience.

In medical school, intense exams, clinical training, and the pressures of pursuing a profession responsible for life-or-death decisions are intertwined with the realities of adulthood: relationships, marriages, household finances, parenting, elder care, deaths in the family. All became further complicated in early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic spread worldwide, affecting many aspects of students’ educational and personal lives.

Starting in March of 2020, educators worked swiftly to adapt medical instruction — in some cases by shifting modality from classrooms to virtual settings, and in others by incorporating topics brought to the fore by the pandemic, such as telemedicine. The summer also brought societal upheaval due to incidences of stark police brutality and racism across the country and in Wisconsin. Students engaged in a renewed commitment to social justice, urging continued focus on advancing health equity and leading a White Coats for Black Lives rally at the state Capitol in June. As the year progressed, students navigated virtual residency interviews in one of the most competitive Match processes in history.

At the virtual May 7 ceremony, Dean Robert N. Golden, MD, addressed the graduates by commending their commitment and courage in adapting to the challenges of the pandemic.

Robert N. Golden
Dean Robert N. Golden pauses for a moment outside of the Health Sciences Learning Center just before delivering remarks to the MD graduates.

“Today we are celebrating the graduation of an amazing class of new physicians,” he said in his remarks. “Your mettle has been forged in the crucible of COVID-19, and you will be stronger because of that experience.”

Golden also touched on violent and deadly racist attacks that transpired in the U.S., reiterating that racism is a public health crisis.

“These horrendous experiences, as well as your exposure to the less visible but still powerful social and environmental determinants of health, should shape your understanding of the importance of integrating medicine and public health principles over the course of your professional lives, no matter what field or pathway you pursue,” he said.

The class-selected faculty speaker, Ann O’Rourke, MD, MPH, associate professor in the Department of Surgery, is well known to students for her involvement in medical education. She delivered a message focused on three central tenets: “Do no harm. Call for help. Do your best.”

Ann O'Rourke and Jason Stephenson
Ann O’Rourke, MD, MPH, associate professor of surgery, and Jason Stephenson, MD, associate professor of radiology, share a physically distant spotlight before the MD Graduate Recognition Ceremony on May 7. O’Rourke was selected by the class of 2021 as the faculty keynote speaker, while Stephenson was one of three faculty members serving as name readers in the virtual ceremony, in lieu of in-person hooding.

“We’ve spent the last year surrounded by death and uncertainty, second guessing what we could do better,” she said. “So many are drowning in the sorrow of being overwhelmed by this. I hope for them, when they can begin to see the light, that they can take comfort that they did their best with what they had intellectually and emotionally at that time. And I hope that you take that emotional armor with you as well.”

O’Rourke welcomed students to the medical profession with a reminder of the importance of lifelong learning, which became clear as the novel coronavirus spread across the globe. She also thanked friends and family for supporting students along the way and into the future.

“I am pleased to be one of the first to welcome you to the sisterhood and brotherhood of physicians,” she said. “There is no higher honor than being entrusted with the care of our fellow humans and our communities.”

Graduate John Ziegler, MD, was chosen by his classmates as the day’s student speaker. The Janesville, Wisconsin, native used his own story of pain, growth, and healing — including the birth of two daughters and the death of his mother during medical school — to illustrate how these experiences transformed his perspective.

John Ziegler
John Ziegler, MD, was selected by his peers to be the student speaker at the May 7 MD Graduate Recognition Ceremony.

Ziegler spoke about starting medical school but taking a leave of absence after his mother was diagnosed with cancer. His training took on new levels of meaning after she passed away and he returned to medical school.

During one semester, he spent Wednesdays in an elective called “The Healer’s Art” that involved discussions around identity, grief, loss, mystery, and awe, while Thursday mornings were spent in an anatomy lab learning from cadavers, human bodies selflessly donated for medical education. The connections between the two were clear to him.

“Where will you find meaning?” he asked his classmates. “Perhaps in the joy of examining a newborn, or the sanctity of an end-of-life conversation, or in any of the moments in between, ranging from routine care to medical marvels. In the fight against injustice, inequality, and inequity, or in doing the research that brings about tomorrow’s prevention, treatments, and cures. Whatever that thing is, knowing you, I know it will be spectacular.”

During medical school, Ziegler helped lead the school’s chapter of Doctors Ought to Care, a group that teaches children about healthy choices, and was elected by his peers for induction into the Gold Humanism Honor Society. He will be pursuing a residency in neurology at the University of Minnesota.

“For all of us wearing caps and gowns today, we would simply not be here without the love and support of our friends and family, who have encouraged us, believed in us, and helped us overcome obstacles both large and small,” he said. “I hope that amidst the celebrations today, you will share your gratitude with the special people in your life.”

Graduate Vivian Gama, MD, will conduct her residency in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. Her family immigrated from Brazil for her father’s job when she was a child. They lived in Ohio and Florida before settling in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, when she began high school.

Gama described how her culture, full of close personal ties and relationships, has helped her foster physician-patient relationships in a way that feels natural. Coming to the United States and not knowing the language, she says, taught her about reading a room and observing body language, which are keys to being a good physician.

“The fact that we have a school of medicine and public health that has public health issues like the social determinants of health embedded in the curriculum really interested me,” she says. “It adds another dimension of learning and understanding so we can treat patients as a whole. It was something that was very intentional even from day one.”

Many MD students received specialized training

The 174 graduating MD students have followed many paths during their degrees. Nine of them studied for eight or more years in the Medical Scientist Training Program to earn both an MD and PhD. Seventeen are graduating with dual MD and MPH degrees.

Medical students can also follow two Paths of Distinction by completing certain requirements, such as additional coursework and a capstone project. The 2021 MD class included 26 graduates with a Path of Distinction in Research and 21 with a Path of Distinction in Public Health.

The school’s Wisconsin Academy for Rural Medicine (WARM) trained 26 students committed to improving rural health, while the Training in Urban Medicine and Public Health (TRIUMPH) program equipped 18 graduates to focus on patient care and community engagement in urban areas.

Graduate Laura Miller, MD, participated in TRIUMPH. Prior to medical school, her experiences in a women’s health clinic, the Peace Corp, and Planned Parenthood instilled a passion for studying the social determinants of health and eliminating health disparities.

Laura Miller
Graduate Laura Miller, MD, participated in the Training in Urban Medicine and Public Health (TRIUMPH) program. She celebrated graduation with her infant daughter, who was born just 12 hours after her last residency interview. Miller says she is dedicated to eliminating health disparities and plans to care for underserved patients in her career. Miller moves to Minneapolis soon for her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Minnesota.

For her TRIUMPH project, Miller worked with an interdisciplinary team to find a group of patients who would be better served by different care methods, such as home visits.

“We got to see first-hand what social determinants were perhaps impacting a patient’s health and what were possible barriers to care,” Miller says. “We were able to provide more in-depth care to those who needed it. It made me realize there are many more ways to provide care than having patients come to us in a clinic. It got us to ask, why can’t we come out into the community to see people?”

Miller will conduct her residency training in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. She hopes to work with underserved populations for her career. She will move to the area with her partner and infant daughter, who was born just 12 hours after her last residency interview.

“TRIUMPH was a huge draw for me to attend SMPH,” Miller says. “It got me to think and question why we do things the way we do and question the ways we’ve provided health care for so long. I learned so much about public health and community health and, honestly, also about being a good person and a good citizen.”

Array of scientists and health professionals enter the workforce

In addition to the Doctor of Medicine program, the School of Medicine and Public Health offers several other degree programs. The school’s class of 2021 also includes:

More than a dozen Master of Science and PhD programs in the basic sciences are affiliated with the School of Medicine and Public Health. These degrees are conferred by the UW–Madison Graduate School, and the programs serve as the cornerstone of the school’s basic and applied science enterprise.

As graduates complete this chapter, members of the school wish every graduate continued success in their careers. Congratulations to the newest generation of leaders poised to advance health, public health, health equity, and scientific discovery!