Service to others and to the community was the focus of Baylor College of Medicine’s 2018 Commencement, held Tuesday, May 29, at Jesse H. Jones Hall in downtown Houston, where 187 students graduated from Baylor’s School of Medicine and 77 from the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

Dr. Paul Klotman, president, CEO and executive dean of Baylor College of Medicine, noted in his remarks at the ceremony that Baylor students and other members of the Baylor community helped in significant ways following last summer’s Hurricane Harvey, but he urged graduates to make community involvement a part of their day-to-day life.

“Being an active part of your community means building relationships, and it is those relationships that ultimately help bridge the gaps in cultural diversity, access to healthcare, limited educational opportunities and other social justice issues that exist today in rural and urban areas nationwide. Baylor College of Medicine graduates are defined as those with great intellect, but also with great compassion and vision for making a difference in the world.”

As the graduating students prepare for their professional lives, Klotman encouraged them to turn to the event’s honorary degree and award recipients as examples. “These honorees were carefully selected to serve as role models for the kind of leaders we have prepared you to become. Each has made phenomenal contributions that have enriched their communities, advanced science and improved health.”

Doctor of Humanities in Medicine degree

The Doctor of Humanities in Medicine degree is awarded to individuals who have provided exceptional support or service, either directly or indirectly, to Baylor or to academic medicine as a whole and to the community at large. This year’s recipients were Dr. David Persse, physician director of the City of Houston Emergency Medical Services and professor of emergency medicine at Baylor, and J.J. Watt, defensive end for the Houston Texans and founder of the Justin J. Watt Foundation. Both played important roles in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

As Houston’s public health authority, Persse is responsible for the medical aspects of clinical care, quality management, disease control and public health preparedness. In accepting the award, he called upon graduates to step up to challenges in the community such as Hurricane Harvey.

“I want to tell you first hand that during Hurricane Harvey and during previous disasters that we’ve had here in Houston, it was Baylor that has always been there. Baylor stepped up and literally stepped into the trenches,” Persse said. “And so to the class of ’18, recognize that you are a member of a community, you are a member of a big family and it is a bond, it is on our shoulders as physician leaders in the community to step up when those challenges face us.”

Through his charity foundation, Watt raised more than $37 million to help with recovery following Hurricane Harvey, far surpassing his initial goal of $200,000. Watt’s foundation also provides after-school opportunities for children. For these achievements, as well as for his performance on the field, Watt was named the 2018 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.

His work following the hurricane taught Watt the power of tapping in to “the inherent good that lies within humanity.”

“There’s a lot of negativity out in the world – whether it’s on the news, whether it’s day to day, whether it’s an attitude when you wake up in the morning. But the one thing that I know, I’ve seen it first hand, is that there’s also a whole lot of good. There’s a whole lot of positivity and there’s a whole lot of people out there who truly care about their fellow human.

“To me that gives me hope, it gives me excitement. Because if we can tap into that, there are so many beautiful things we can do with this world. And that’s my challenge to you. You guys have all done incredible things and you’re going to go on to do even more incredible things. But what I challenge you to do is to help bring out that inherent good in everyone around you. Help be that positive light. Help be that person who everybody else wants to be around and help be that energy that takes this world into an even better place. Because if we all do a little bit, we all do our part, we can truly change the world, one person at a time.”

Doctor of Letters in Medicine

The Doctor of Letters in Medicine is awarded to physicians or research scientists who have excelled in medicine through teaching, research or public service and whose acts have brought credit or advancement to Baylor or to the profession of academic medicine. Recipients were:

  • Dr. Alice McPherson, a world renowned ophthalmologist who pioneered endeavors in retina research and surgery and longtime Baylor faculty member, who was not able to attend the ceremony.
  • Nobel Laureate Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, the James B. Duke Professor of Medicine and professor of biochemistry and chemistry at the Duke University Medical Center and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

Commencement Address

Lefkowitz also delivered this year’s commencement address, in which he discussed the importance and power of experiencing a true calling. There are several important elements in the notion of a calling, he said, including:

  • Belief in what you are doing and its importance, which will empower you to achieve more than you thought possible;
  • Conviction that you were meant to do this and that the work fully engages the best of your innate talents and abilities;
  • A sense of enthusiasm and optimism about what you are doing.

Several ‘diagnostic tests’ can inform whether you are responding to a calling, Lefkowitz told the graduates. “Do you feel passionate engagement, does it intensely focus your concentration, do you experience a sense of timelessness, do you have sense that work is not work, but what you were meant to do? Hopefully in the years ahead, you will answer an emphatic yes to these questions.”

However, Lefkowitz said that some, like him, may experience more than one calling. For the Bronx native, one of his early role models, in addition to Yankee great Mickey Mantle, was the family physician, and Lefkowitz knew from the third grade that he would become a physician as well. Later, he would realize that the focus of his life’s work would lie in the laboratory rather than at the bedside. He went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012 for his groundbreaking discoveries that reveal the inner workings of G-protein-coupled receptors, which live on cells in the body and enable them to sense and adapt to their environment.

“I don’t believe that for any individual, there is only one possible best choice,” he said. “In my own case, I heard a calling to two careers and know many who have reinvented themselves in a variety of roles. One of the wonderful things about a career in medicine and the other health professions is that the journey has so many possible itineraries and destinations. I would hope that none of you will ever feel hemmed in or confined by early choices.”

In following one’s calling, Lefkowitz reminded the graduates that there is more to life than work and that they must maintain a balance between their medical or scientific career and family life. “My fondest wish for you is that in the years ahead you will feel, as I have throughout my career, that your two favorite times of day are when you leave for work in the morning, anticipating the adventures and challenges that lie ahead, and when you return home in the evening, anticipating your time with your family and leisure pursuits.”

Presidential Award for Excellence

The Presidential Award for Excellence was presented to Dr. Hugo J. Bellen, professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor, investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and March of Dimes Chair in Developmental Biology. This award is bestowed on individuals for their leadership in research and research mentoring.

Also speaking at the Commencement ceremony were Dr. Mark Tanner, on behalf of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, and Justin Cardenas, president of the medical school graduating class.