Members of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health class of 2022 have demonstrated their commitment to a critical mission: improve health for all. This goal has inspired a range of accomplishments such as responding to the COVID-19 pandemic through rapid viral sequencing and bioinformatics analysis, creating ways to increase cultural competency in the field of physical therapy, and challenging ableism in medicine.

On Friday, May 13, the Doctor of Medicine Graduate Recognition Ceremony celebrated a triumphant return to an in-person celebration at the UW–Madison Memorial Union after being held virtually for two years. The school’s other health professions programs — Doctor of Physical Therapy, Master of Genetic Counselor Studies, Master of Physician Assistant Studies, and Master of Public Health — also gathered throughout the week to honor their graduates. Many basic science graduate degree programs similarly celebrated students completing their studies. Festivities culminated in the official UW–Madison commencement ceremony for doctoral and health professions graduates on Friday evening.

The class of 2022 navigated the COVID-19 pandemic for a significant span of their studies. Experiencing the impact of the pandemic while preparing for their future careers required determination, creativity, adaptability, and persistence. The challenges and complexities brought into sharp focus students’ dedication to caring for communities, particularly those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

During the Doctor of Medicine Graduate Recognition Ceremony, Dean Robert N. Golden, MD, told the graduates to look forward to a lifetime of learning and praised their strength and commitment to their education.

“I deeply admire your resilience in moving forward into your core clinical experiences just as the worst global pandemic in a century was exploding,” he said. “COVID-19 taught us in the most powerful way the importance of integrating medicine and public health. On this special day, as we reflect on our collective COVID past and present, we should also embrace and celebrate your exciting future. You have learned and achieved so much during your time here, and I know the best is yet to come.”

Dean Robert N. Golden, MD, shakes the hand of each graduating medical student as they cross the stage after receiving their hood. Photo by Todd Brown, Media Solutions.

He also urged students to continue to be advocates for investments in public health and practitioners of effective communication with patients and the community.

“We must communicate effectively with our patients, and we must communicate effectively with each other, openly sharing our data and our experience,” he said. “We must communicate respectfully, patiently, and persistently, dispelling myths and falsehoods.”

The Doctor of Medicine class of 2022 chose Carol Diamond, MD, associate professor of pediatrics, as their faculty speaker. To inform her remarks to the students, she spoke with former patients, colleagues, and friends about what they would want the school’s newest generation of physicians to know.

“I realized after collecting these words, once again, how lucky I have been to have such rich and wonderful relationships with these people,” she told the students. “You can look forward to these relationships too as you move forward.”

Her stories illustrated the importance of mutual trust between doctor and patient. Diamond also shared a physician’s spin on the “golden rule:” treat each and every patient and their family as you would want to be treated. She concluded with a call to action.

“I am going to challenge you — that with the incredible breakthroughs in research and technology, artificial intelligence, deep learning, evidence-based care — coming to the diagnosis and knowing how to prevent or treat an illness should get easier and less challenging in some ways,” she said. “However, the challenge is to focus on what matters: look someone in the eye, develop a relationship, give of your heart, and stay curious. Keep that curiosity and quest for learning – it’s what got you here and will keep you going — believe me.”

Benjamin Kannenberg, MD, was selected by the class as their student speaker. A Milwaukee native, Kannenberg earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Oklahoma and came back to Wisconsin to attend UW for medical school, completing the Training in Urban Medicine and Public Health (TRIUMPH) training track. This allowed him to complete part of his medical training in Milwaukee and give back to his hometown.

Benjamin Kannenberg, MD, was selected by his peers to be the ceremony’s student speaker. He spoke about a time in his medical education where he learned about the importance of hope for both patients and physicians. Photo by Todd Brown, Media Solutions.

Kannenberg spoke about the importance of hope in the lives of both patients and physicians. He recalled a story of giving a case presentation to his attending physician at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee. Although he followed a checklist he had learned in class, the attending was unsatisfied. She then asked him a question he was not expecting: "What gives this patient hope for the future?" As he struggled to respond, he recognized instantly that this was an impactful moment of learning.

“She asked another question, this one profound enough that I promptly forgot the rest of her feedback from that interaction: ‘If we don't know what gives our patients hope, how can we hope to know our patients?’” he said. “As I stand on the precipice of my career, I've been thinking a lot about that question, and I invite you to think about it too — in service of knowing ourselves, what gives us hope for the future?”

Wendy Sun

Wendy Sun was one of the 173 medical students listening to the remarks and marking the completion of their MD studies. Her parents immigrated from China when she was three years old and initially settled in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, and later moved to Gainesville, Florida and Fargo, North Dakota. Sun earned her bachelor’s degree at UW–Madison and then worked for two years as an autism behavioral therapist, pediatrics research coordinator, and emergency department scribe before starting medical school.

While pursuing her degree, Sun drew on her personal experiences to establish a disability advocacy group that builds community among students, facilitating discussion of ways to address mental and physical health and to advocate for disability rights. She also engaged university leaders with her ideas about a disability cultural center. Sun asserts that it is valuable for disabled patients and future physicians to see themselves represented in the health professions.

“I believe it is important for medical students to learn how to work with patients with disabilities and their families, as well as for us to learn how to work with other healthcare professionals with disabilities,” she said. “To be able to form that connection is vital to care.”

Medical students learn to care for rural and urban communities, and to integrate research and medicine

In the Doctor of Medicine program, students may choose training tracks to delve deeper into specific areas. One option is to complete additional coursework and a capstone project to earn a Path of Distinction. Fifty-eight students in the 2022 class graduated with a Path of Distinction in Public Health or Path of Distinction in Research.

Two other programs focus on caring for rural or urban populations, respectively. This year, 24 students graduated from the Wisconsin Academy for Rural Medicine, called WARM, and 17 from the Training in Urban Medicine and Public Health program, called TRIUMPH. Dual degrees are also a popular option. The class of 2022 includes four students who completed an MD and Master of Public Health (MPH) and seven who earned an MD and PhD in the school’s Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), which involves completing both degrees over approximately eight years. The goal of MSTP is to educate physician-scientists who will make significant impacts on human health.

MSTP graduate Katarina Braun, MD, PhD, was attracted to the program’s integrated training in scientific research and clinical medicine. Her research took an unexpected turn in 2020 as the novel coronavirus swept across the globe and made its way to the United States and Wisconsin. Braun found herself well-positioned to help in the response to COVID-19, given her graduate work focused on other respiratory viruses while studying in the laboratory of Tom Friedrich, PhD, a virologist and professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine.

With her experience in viral sequencing and bioinformatic analysis of large datasets, Braun processed the sample corresponding to the first confirmed case of SARS-CoV-2 in Wisconsin. Through a partnership beginning in 2020 that involved the Friedrich laboratory and the laboratory of David O’Connor, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, Braun continued to conduct large-scale SARS-CoV-2 viral sequencing and analysis of thousands of samples from infected individuals in Wisconsin. The goal of this work, described in a February 2021 article, was to keep watch for arrival of virus variants that are more efficient at infecting people or have mutations that render vaccines and treatments less effective.

“Far and away, I am most proud of my research on SARS-CoV-2 in the state of Wisconsin and, in particular, the impact of this work on public health recommendations,” she said. “We also summarized findings and submitted papers for publication in scientific journals. I led the discussions of this work with Senator Tammy Baldwin, UW–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, and Dean Golden at their site visit in April of 2021, which helped inform Senator Baldwin’s Tracking COVID-19 Variants Act.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin listens to a presentation by Katarina Braun, MD, PhD, (back left gesturing) during a tour of the AIDS Vaccine Research Laboratory in University Research Park on April, 5. Photo by Jeff Miller, University Communications.

For her residency, Braun will pursue obstetrics and gynecology — a specialty few physician-scientists select — at Yale New Haven Hospital. She says she was drawn to the field by its clinical needs as well as the many vital unanswered basic and translational research questions.

“I firmly believe that research is one of the primary forces underpinning improved patient outcomes,” she says. “I am delighted by the opportunities I will have in ob-gyn to contribute to advancing care for these individuals and populations.”

Graduates initiate new efforts to advance inclusion and health equity

Maurice “Moe” Lucré

Maurice “Moe” Lucré, PT, DPT, is a 2022 graduate of the Doctor of Physical Therapy program who is inspired by a “big picture” approach to increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in the profession. In addition to his coursework and clinical experiences, Lucré served as co-president of the program’s ADEPT group (Advancing Diversity and Excellence in Physical Therapy), which focused on increasing cultural competence and cultural humility of students, faculty, and staff.

He also facilitated presentations on physical therapy to more than 150 middle school students from populations in the Madison and Milwaukee areas that are historically underrepresented in medical fields, and co-presented with faculty at the national conference of the American Physical Therapy Association.

“I had the opportunity to contribute ideas and resources to the department to help improve the inclusivity of our program, which have been listened to and implemented,” Lucré says. “I am excited to remain involved in research and speaking at conferences focused on the interplay of diversity, equity, inclusion, and health care.”

The school’s integration of public health with other disciplines provided an opportunity for graduate Olivia Gonzalez, MPH, to center her studies on an area that she hadn’t anticipated. Gonzalez completed her MPH degree through the Nursing to Master of Public Health Advanced Degree Option, in which undergraduate nursing students begin studies in public health and then finish their MPH while employed in a clinical setting.

Olivia Gonzalez, MPH, graduating with a master's degree in public health, gets help with her robe prior to the ceremony. Photo by Bryce Richter

After graduating in 2020 with her bachelor’s of nursing, she began her MPH coursework while working as a trauma nurse at Froedert Hospital in Milwaukee. She cared for a gunshot victim on her first day of work. And her second day as well — an experience that would continue to be repeated. That frequency led her to question and investigate gun violence from a public health perspective, and analyze what resources are available to mitigate the disproportionate rates of gun violence among communities of color.

“A pivotal point in my public health passion stems from listening to Dr. Patrick Remington lecture in an introduction to Public Health course my freshman year,” she recalled.

“He said, ‘Hypothetically, there is no such thing as an accident, as there should have been something in place to prevent that event from happening.’ This planted a conceptual seed. I reflected on the morbidity and mortality of injury prevention in the United States and our room for improvement. I craved the knowledge to continue growing my public health passion and an MPH at UW sounded like the perfect environment for that growth.”

By the Numbers: School of Medicine and Public Health 2022 Graduates