Graduation Day 2000
BY JEFFREY MORTIMER
Stefan Gutow celebrates the moment
with Cyril Grum, associate chair for undergraduate medical
The University of Michigan Medical School Class of 2000 was
the first class of a new century (or the last of the old, depending
on your point of view), and the graduating class of the Medical
School's sesquicentennial year. It graduated in the year that
the mapping of the human genome was completed, and it is the
first class in U-M Medical School history to establish its own
endowment upon graduation.
But what really sets this class apart is that its members
are almost certain to remember their commencement address
— not just because it was delivered by Francis S. Collins,
M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Human Genome Research
Institute and perhaps the best known medical scientist in
America at the moment, but also because Collins concluded
his presentation by accompanying himself on the guitar while
singing a parody he penned of Frank Sinatra's signature song, "My
Way," which included
such lines as the following from the last stanza:
And now, my fine young friends,
now that I am a full professor
Where once I was oppressed,
I have now become the cruel oppressor
With me I hope you'll see
the double helix is a highway
And yes, you'll learn it's best to do it my way.
I'm just a man, what can I do?
Open your books, read chapter two
And if it seems a bit routine
Don't talk to me, go see the dean
Just start today, love DNA,
And do it my way.
Collins may be on leave from his U-M Medical School faculty
appointment, but he retains his ability to surprise and delight
students. He had reached the last of what he called the "four
food groups of a balanced life" — work, spirituality,
love, and fun — when he paused to note that, "Fun
is sort of a difficult subject to lecture on. Perhaps, instead,
we need a demonstration."
That's when he departed the podium to fetch his guitar from
behind a draped table upon which the furled diplomas awaited
their new owners. "I bet the dean wondered what that other
microphone was for," he grinned before crooning a tune
whose lyrics went from medical student's lament to professor's
triumph and brought down the house at Hill Auditorium. This
was after pointing out that "fun is important, folks. Medicine
is full of sobering, tragic moments. So is the rest of life.
Don't forget to exercise your sense of humor. You're going to
He noted at the outset that "the kind of wisdom that is
conveyed in commencement addresses tends to have a half-life
measured in milliseconds." Mitigating against that outcome
were both his boffo finish and the simplicity of his theme:
"Let me urge you to do this one thing: seek a balanced
life. Do not allow the pressures of your profession, noble though
it is, to crowd out the other aspects of a happy and fulfilled
life. Medicine is a selfish mistress. Don't give in to her.
Nurture four areas, not just one."
Even though (or perhaps because) he heads the most spectacular
medical technology project of our time, Collins made a comment
by Albert Schweitzer the centerpiece of his remarks on the "work"
portion of the "food groups": "Our technology
must not exceed our humanity."
You will experience the flowering of evidence-based medicine
in a way that many of those who came before us did not enjoy,"
he said. "New technologies, some of which we can now glimpse,
many of which we cannot, will illuminate your approach to disease
and lead to unprecedented abilities to diagnose and treat illness.
But as we celebrate those technical accomplishments, I hope
we will remember what medicine is all about."
His own revelation came at a time when his spirits were sagging
during a stint as a volunteer in a mission hospital in Nigeria.
Having gone there full of idealism, "I soon discovered
that my puny services weren't much help," he said. "It
was clear that much of the illness that surrounded me in that
hospital was because of poor public health, and that our efforts
to try to treat disease were really just putting a brief thumb
in the dike. There was no chance that my presence on the scene
was going to change those circumstances."
A farmer of about 30 appeared, with dramatic edema of the lower
extremities. Collins diagnosed it as a large pericardial effusion,
drained it as best he could with the tools available, saw the
patient improve dramatically, started him on a treatment for
tuberculosis, and knew perfectly well that he would be going
back to the same conditions that had made him ill in the first
place. "It all seemed so pointless," he said.
On rounds the next morning, the farmer told Collins that he
looked as if he were wondering why he had come to Nigeria. "Is
there any chance I'm right about that?" he asked.
Collins said he was indeed right. "I want to tell you
something," the farmer said. "You came here to this
place for one reason. You came here for me."
"I realized that was absolutely everything that any physician
could ever hope for, to be there for that person at that time,"
Collins told the graduates. "All my grand ideas about changing
the public health of the Third World paled in comparison to
what this young farmer was saying to me. What it's really about
is you and that patient at that moment when they need you. Even
if what you have to offer is, in your mind, insufficient, you
are doing something for them. Do not forget that."
"Spirituality" is essential, he said, because "as
a physician, you will struggle every day with profound questions."
God must be a consideration in their contemplation, he said.
"In my view," said Collins, "there's no conflict
in being both a rigorous, show-me-the-data scientist, which
I consider myself to be, and a person who believes in a God
who takes a personal interest in each one of us and whose domain
is the spiritual world. That domain is not necessarily possible
to explore with the tools of science, but within the heart,
the mind and the soul. It is remarkable how many of us fail
to consider these questions of eternal significance until some
personal crisis, or perhaps advancing age, forces us to face
our own spiritual impoverishment. Don't make that mistake."
The "food group" called "love," he suggested,
includes both "love for one another," the fellow members
of our species, and romantic love. The Human Genome Project's
finding that "we are 99.9 percent identical, all of us,"
he noted, is "a lovely thing to realize," adding that,
although prejudice still abounds, "You have a chance to
change that, one person at a time."
Romantic love, he cautioned, is a comparable challenge on the
personal level. "Realistically, medicine places romantic
relationships at risk," he said. "Whether you've found
your life partner already or are still looking, make this a
priority. Don't put it aside, and don't fail to give it the
attention it deserves."
And, of course, there was fun, a quality that also abounded
in Michael Case Overbeck's remarks on behalf of the Class of
"Maybe I can introduce you to them by their characteristics,"
the emergency medicine graduate said of his classmates. "From
my standpoint, I'll tell everyone here that this is the most
diverse, intelligent, rigorous, kind, talented, affectionate,
dog-loving, cat-loving, rat-loving, scuba-diving, plane-flying,
family-oriented, smart-alec, spitwad-throwing, sleep-deprived,
awe-inspiring, capable, and complex group of individuals I've
ever been associated with."
When the applause died down, he added, "Oh, and I left
out smart. They are scary smart, too."
Overbeck reported experiencing a personal moment of revelation
much like Collins did in Nigeria. It came in his fourth year,
after a particularly trying visit on rounds with a particularly
trying, and not terribly ill, patient. As he was leaving, the
man in the next bed, who was much sicker and not Overbeck's
patient, grasped his hand, patted it, and said, "You are
a great doctor."
"On that day, I realized what we had been doing for the
past four years, what it's all about," he said. "It's
certainly not about grades or board scores...It's about life
and sometimes death and comforting and relieving. It is about
the richness of the human experience from a vantage upon which
we are privileged to perch."
Earlier, he had talked about rediscovering a paragraph he had
written as a fifth grade assignment about what he would be doing
in the year 2000. "Most of all, I will be rich," he
had recorded then.
And, he told his fellow graduates, he had indeed become rich,
though not exactly as he had anticipated. "I am wealthier
than I ever could have imagined when I was a 10-year-old boy,"
he said. "I've accumulated wealth over the last four years
beyond my wildest dreams. I stand before you today, sweltering
in this hot robe, a rich man."
Graduate Commencement 2000
The Rackham School Studies Awards More Thirty Ph.D. Degrees
Biological Sciences Three Ph.D. Graduates Also Earn M.D.s
Commencement ceremonies for spring 2000 began on Sunday, April
28, with the graduation exercises of the Horace Rackham School
of Graduate Studies. While the Medical School awards M.D. degrees,
students pursuing Ph.D.s in medical fields officially enroll
in and receive their degrees from Rackham though their studies
and research take place within the Medical School. This year,
more than medical Ph.D. degrees were awarded fields ranging
from biological chemistry to human genetics. Three students
receiving Ph.D.s went on to also receive M.D.s from the Medical
School during its graduation exercises on June 9, earned within
the Universitys prestigious M.D./ Ph.D. program.