Summer 2014

What’s Old Is New Again

Despite changes in medicine, good preparation will win out, graduates told

By Jacqueline Mitchell

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Rachel Hilburg considers the moment. Photo: Matthew Healey

At the 122nd Commencement ceremonies for the medical school, and the 34th for the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, the roster of speakers sounded uniformly hopeful notes in the face of marked flux in the nation’s medical and research fields.

“It’s an interesting time” to be graduating, Dean Harris Berman told the medical graduates during the ceremony on May 18. He reminded them that the reasons they entered medicine in the first place—the desire to care for their patients in compassionate and effective ways—had not gone anywhere. “There are new organizational models and payment systems, and you will be asked to do more with less,” he said, “but patients will trust in you and confide in you, just like always.” Acting responsibly throughout your career to make a difference in patients’ lives constitutes “the final reward,” he said.


Kelly Arnett in the arms of a family member. Photo: Matthew Healey

The terms of the deal having shifted doesn’t mar the perennial value of medical practice, Berman suggested. “You are poised to have wonderful careers doing good,” he told the graduates assembled before him in the Gantcher Center on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus. “Go do it.” 

Angela Kang, the medical class president, struck a valiant tone in her remarks, recalling the class’s long journey “that started with blood and brains” in first-year anatomy class. When a snowstorm threatened to halt studies one winter day, class members “strapped on our snowshoes, hitched up our husky dogs” and made it to class regardless, she said. “We weren’t going to let a global- warming day stop us.” Last year’s Boston Marathon bombings raised serious issues for members of the class, Kang pointed out, eliciting fear and prompting questions about whether they could exhibit the same humility and courage they witnessed that day on the streets of Boston.

“We are proud and grateful,” Kang declared. “My fellow graduates, we take an exhilarating step forward today.”

Naomi Rosenberg, dean of the Sackler School, exuded pride in her remarks. “I’m very pleased with your achievements” she told the graduates. “All of you have found challenges in your work, and you’ve met and mastered these challenges in wonderful ways.” She cited a few of the regular milestones of attaining an advanced degree, a process often stretching over many years, including the first biochemistry exam and first thesis committee meeting—and the widespread anxieties surrounding these markers. “You are well prepared. You know how to struggle and persevere,” Rosenberg said. “We wish you all the best in your future pursuits.”

Holly Ponichtera, who gave the Sackler student address, had The Wizard of Oz on her mind as she thought back over her classmates’ path to this day. A yellow brick road of sorts had brought everyone to a moment where America still leads the world in biomedical research, a status that seems unthreatened despite ongoing NIH budget cuts. They were now prepared to enter this realm. “You may remember that in The Wizard of Oz everyone got what they wanted in the end. Well, congratulations, good luck, God bless,” Ponichtera told her classmates. “Our dreams really did come true.”

Earlier in the day, at the 158th university-wide commencement ceremony, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a scholar of international relations and law and the Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, was the keynote speaker. The university awarded 1,509 undergraduate degrees and 1,961 graduate degrees. Slaughter received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco also presented honorary degrees to James M. Lawson Jr., an architect of the American civil rights nonviolence movement; Jill Lepore, J87, the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker; Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist who has been praised for his work as a writer and translator; and James A. Stern, E72, A07P, a financier and philanthropist who is chairman emeritus of the Tufts Board of Trustees.


Anna Henderson, age 114, congratulates her great-granddaughter, Lytia Fisher, on her medical commencement. Photo: Matthew Healey

On Her Ancestors’ Shoulders

When Lytia Leanne Fisher crossed the stage to receive her Doctor of Medicine diploma in May, she completed a journey that began more than a century and a half ago. Her great-great-great-grandmother, Ann Thomas, was born a slave in 1850, and worked as a midwife on a plantation in northwest Georgia. In 1900 she helped deliver Anna Henderson, Fisher’s great-grandmother (shown here, with, from left, Fisher’s mother and grandmother, congratulating Fisher at commencement). 

Henderson carries her own bright glow. She bore eight children, and with no more than a sixth-grade education, became the steadfast chronicler of her family’s history. “She always let us know about our past through storytelling,” says Fisher. “That became part of our everyday conversation.” Henderson lived in her own home in Philadelphia until she was 107. Now, at age 114, she is the fourth oldest person in the United States and sixth oldest in the world, by latest count.

Since she was a little girl, Fisher has wanted to be an obstetrician and carry on the work begun by Ann Thomas. “I think she was a wonderful midwife, and now I will be receiving the accolades she never got. She got paid with chickens,” Fisher notes. “It’s all of this”—the family’s enslavement, perennial struggles and enduring faith—“that’s allowed me to be who I am today, to be a doctor.”

A recent rotation in Ghana, where she visited slave castles near the embarkation point for the dreaded Middle Passage to America, gave Fisher an even deeper appreciation for her heritage and the personal mission that grows out of it. “I’m standing on the shoulders of some strong ancestors,” she says, with a slight lift of her chin, “and I strive every day to make them proud.” She has her cheering section already in place. To attend Fisher’s commencement, 40 members of her extended family rented a bus and drove up together from Philadelphia.

Fisher has begun her residency in obstetrics/gynecology at the North Shore University Hospital Program in Manhasset, New York.

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