May 13, 2020

Recognition of graduating students takes new approach

On Friday, May 8, Vanderbilt University Schools of Medicine and Nursing and the Basic Sciences celebrated students earning degrees. They will have the opportunity to return to the Vanderbilt University campus in May 2021 for the University-wide official Commencement ceremony.

On Friday, May 8, Vanderbilt University Schools of Medicine and Nursing and the Basic Sciences celebrated students earning degrees. They will have the opportunity to return to the Vanderbilt University campus in May 2021 for the University-wide official Commencement ceremony.

School of Medicine

The School of Medicine, which awarded degrees to 168 graduates, including the Doctor of Medicine to 82 students, held a class of 2020 MD Celebration via YouTube and Zoom to not only honor each other, but faculty members and residents for their exemplary teaching and guidance.

“While we look forward to welcoming you back when we can all be together for a formal graduation ceremony, it’s important to recognize and to savor all that you’ve accomplished,” said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and CEO of Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Dean of the School of Medicine. “This is very likely not what you thought it would feel like as you finished your medical school degree … Grit will sustain you and even propel you to careers in leadership in the ways that complement the incredible education you’ve received here at Vanderbilt. Please know how proud we are, and I am, to have been part of your lives at such an important time, and know that we are with you as your journey unfolds.”

Class president Varun Menon, MD, acknowledged the faculty marshals, selected by the class graduation committee, for their preeminent influence on the class of 2020: Bonnie Miller, MD, MMHC, André Churchwell, MD, Steven Eskind, MD, and Howard Fuchs, MD (posthumously).

Geoffrey Fleming, MD, MMHC, professor of Pediatrics and vice president, VUMC Continuous Professional Development, and Amy Fleming, MD, MHPE, professor of Pediatrics and associate dean of Medical Student Affairs, were selected by the class to lead them in the Professional Oath.

Kianna Jackson, MD

The Founder’s Medalist for the VUSM class of 2020 is Kianna Jackson, MD, from Evansville, Indiana. She is the first African American to receive that honor from VUSM. Jackson completed her undergraduate education at MIT before beginning medical training at VUSM.

At Vanderbilt, she has been a leader and mentor, serving as president of the Student National Medical Association, committee chair for the Student Wellness Program and leader for the Shade Tree Clinic, Vanderbilt’s free student-run clinic for Nashville’s underserved. As a medical student, Jackson spearheaded the creation of a new plastic surgery elective. She will serve her residency in plastic surgery at VUMC.

All told, the School of Medicine awarded the following degrees:

  •  10 Doctor of Audiology;
  •  4 Doctor of Medical Physics;
  •  82 Doctor of Medicine, including students who earned a dual degree
  •  2 Master of Education of the Deaf;
  •  5 Master of Laboratory Investigation;
  •  28 Master of Public Health
  •  8 Master of Science in Clinical Investigation;
  •  4 Master of Science in Medical Physics;
  •  21 Master of Science (Speech Language Pathology); and
  •  2 Master of Science (Applied Clinical Informatics)

Basic Sciences

Maria Agostini, PhD, was one of 76 students who earned doctoral degrees in the biomedical sciences from Vanderbilt during the 2019-2020 academic year.

Maria Agostini, PhD

Before this year, when Agostini talked about her research with a non-scientist friend or family member, she had to do a lot of explaining. Now, she only has to say a few words: coronaviruses and antiviral drugs, like remdesivir.

Agostini, who completed her doctoral degree in October 2019 and remained at Vanderbilt for a short postdoctoral fellowship, worked with Mark Denison, MD, whose team has been studying coronaviruses for more than 25 years. Their studies of remdesivir laid the foundation for ongoing clinical trials of the drug as a treatment for COVID-19, putting the group into the center of a media storm.

“Seeing the name of someone you’ve worked closely with on the front page of the New York Times is not something I ever envisioned,” Agostini said. She’s hopeful that the work the Denison lab has been involved in will help in the efforts to curb the pandemic.

Mark Denison, MD, second from left, demonstrates that everyone is standing at least six feet apart in accordance with social distancing guidelines as the team celebrates several of Vanderbilt’s newest PhD graduates: from left, Jordan Anderson-Daniels, PhD, Kevin Graepel, MD, PhD, and Maria Agostini, PhD.

The Denison team had a celebration in the hallway “six feet apart and wearing masks,” Agostini said, to honor her and fellow graduates Kevin Graepel, MD, PhD, and Jordan Anderson-Daniels, PhD.

Vanderbilt’s newest biomedical sciences PhD graduates published an average of 4.8 scientific papers as a result of their graduate work at Vanderbilt. Their research appeared in highly respected journals including Science, Cell, Nature Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation, according to Abigail Brown, PhD, director of Outcomes Research in the Office of Biomedical Research Education and Training.

Three-quarters of the group gave oral presentations at national or international meetings and 99% gave oral or poster presentations. The students were supported by external fellowships (41%) and/or institutional NIH training grant fellowships (79%).

Most of the new PhD graduates — 64% — are continuing their training with postdoctoral fellowships. These include traditional positions in academic research laboratories as well as non-traditional industry, government and clinical fellowships. The rest have accepted or are seeking employment that does not require a prior postdoctoral fellowship.

School of Nursing

School of Nursing Dean Linda Norman, DSN, RN, told 2020 graduates that while the current COVID-19 pandemic disrupted end-of-year activities, it put advanced practice nurses like the new graduates in the world’s spotlight.

“People see nurses risking their well-being to help desperately ill people. They see nurses solving problems and providing quality, necessary health care. World leaders, government officials, media and the public recognize the need for well-pre- pared, educated nurses in our health care system at all levels,” Norman said. “The world needs you more than ever.

Norman, who is also the Valere Potter Menefee Professor of Nursing, spoke to graduates in a video address posted to the school’s Commencement page and YouTube.

The VUSN class included 328 Master of Science in Nursing and 70 Doctor of Nursing Practice graduates. An additional three PhD in Nursing Science graduates were honored in Vanderbilt Graduate School ceremonies. Because VUSN students finish their programs at different times of the year, the 2020 class was made up of graduates who finished their nursing programs in August 2019, December 2019 and May 2020.

Jane Mericle, DNP

The Founder’s Medal for VUSN was awarded to Jane Mericle, DNP. An experienced nurse leader and chief nursing officer, Mericle was a member of VUSN’s first Executive Leadership cohort in its Doctor of Nursing Practice program. Her doctoral scholarly project focused on professional well-being for nurse managers. It implemented a LEAN improvement approach to developing strategies that could improve professional well-being of front-line nurse managers. The project can be adapted to other health care organizations.

The School of Nursing’s video address also included celebratory remarks from VUSN’s senior associate deans and academic specialty directors.

Senior Associate Dean for Academics Mavis Schorn, PhD, APRN, CNM, FNAP, encouraged the class to stay lifelong learners. “Keep learning, keep leaning into challenges and keep thinking about the best way to help humankind, especially those who are the most vulnerable among us,” Schorn said.

Courtney Pitts, DNBP, MPH, director of the Family Nurse Practitioner Specialty, expressed what many of her fellow specialty directors said about their students. “Congratulations. We are now proud to call you colleagues. Represent VUSN well,” Pitts said.