May 19, 2021

Ceremonies honor 2021 graduates

The Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, School of Nursing and Graduate School held Commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 15, for the Class of 2021.

School of Medicine

by Kathy Whitney

Natalie Morales, MD, left, Daniel Pereira, MD, and Mark Naguib, MD, take a selfie during Commencement for the School of Medicine’s class of 2021. (photo by Donn Jones)

Vanderbilt University School of Medicine held its Commencement ceremony for the Class of 2021 on Saturday, May 15.

“Today is an incredible day. Commencement is always momentous and exciting, but this year the energy is electric,” said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and CEO of Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Dean of the School of Medicine. “Being here all together feels right. The last two years of your medical school experience were unexpected, to say the least. You’ll encounter amazing Vanderbilt colleagues wherever you go, but this class carries with it something very special. That something is perspective. You now understand certain things far earlier than many of us did in our careers. You have perspective on how health care functions in a prolonged crisis.”

Laura Baker, MD, and her VUSM classmates listen to speakers during Commencement. (photo by Donn Jones)

Balser commended the class, who had gathered with family members under a tent on the recreation field, for finding innovative ways to remain connected to patients when they were pulled from the clinical setting in 2020 due to COVID-19.  The students eagerly helped arrange telehealth appointments and volunteered in the community. Catie Havemann, MD, was one of the students who helped organize volunteer opportunities for her classmates.

“When you start medical school, everyone talks about ‘drinking from the firehose’ to describe learning the science of medicine, but I think the most memorable thing about my time at Vanderbilt is actually the ways that I’ve grown as a person,” said Havemann, who is set to begin an emergency medicine residency.

Chiamaka Sonubi will begin her residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Emory University in July. (photo by Donn Jones)

“Medical school pushes you both intentionally and incidentally to dig deeper, and because of that, I’m leaving this leg of the journey very grounded in who I am, my core values and my own idea of what it means to live a life I am proud of. I have a deeper appreciation of what it means to serve others, which I plan to do both clinically and academically. In the emergency department, I’ll be able to serve some of our most vulnerable patients guided by the emergency medicine ethos which is ‘anyone, anything, anytime.’”

Graduate Will Furuyama, MD, co-founded the social mission committee while at Vanderbilt and is staying at VUMC for a urology residency.

Karampreet “Peety” Kaur, MD, was named Founder’s Medalist for VUSM’s class of 2021. (photo by Donn Jones)

“The Social Mission Committee was a wonderful opportunity to work with other students who are interested in health equity and justice,” Furuyama said. “It was a transformative experience to think and work with future physicians who are determined to make medicine responsive to the needs of communities that continue to be disadvantaged and marginalized. I feel so lucky to have met mentors, classmates and friends who are so committed to the deeply necessary changes that must happen in our field.”

Karampreet “Peety” Kaur, MD, was named Founder’s Medalist for the class of 2021. Kaur, who served as president of the class, will begin her OB-GYN residency at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in July.

The students selected Travis Crook, MD, assistant professor of Pediatrics, as the recipient of the 2021 Shovel Award, bestowed on the faculty member deemed best teacher by the class. Crook read the names of the students as they walked across the stage. They chose Kimberly Vinson, MD, associate dean for Diversity Affairs, to lead them in the recitation of their oaths.

All told, 185 degrees were awarded to the class of 2021 as follows:

  • Doctor of Audiology – 16
  • Doctor of Medical Physics – 2
  • Doctor of Medicine, including students who earned a dual degree – 97 (16 earned PhDs as well.)
  • Master of Education of the Deaf – 1
  • Master of Laboratory Investigation – 1 (Of note, this is the last of the MLI degrees being awarded as that program has now been sunset.)
  • Master of Public Health – 25
  • Master of Science in Clinical Investigation – 10
  • Master of Science in Medical Physics – 4
  • Master of Science (Speech Language Pathology) – 19
  • Master of Science (Applied Clinical Informatics) – 5
  • Master of Genetic Counseling degree – 5 (This is the first year that this degree has been awarded.)

Graduate School

by Leigh MacMillan

The Graduate School’s Kalen Petersen, PhD in Chemical & Physical Biology, and Kristin Kwakwa, PhD in Cancer Biology, met as graduate students at Vanderbilt in 2014 and married in 2018. (photo by Erin O. Smith)

At the Graduate School commencement held at Vanderbilt Stadium on May 15, C. André Christie-Mizell, PhD, vice provost for Graduate Education and dean of the Graduate School, noted the “extraordinary circumstances” in which graduates completed their studies.

“The COVID-19 pandemic required that we be nimble and creative in ways that were previously unknown to us,” Christie-Mizell said. “Because commencement is a time when we honor and celebrate your achievements, I want to make sure that we add to these achievements an asterisk that marks your incredible resilience, flexibility and strength in the face of intractable personal and social obstacles of the last year.”

Megan Rasmussen, PhD in Cell and Developmental Biology, with her faculty mentor Vivian Gama, PhD, at the Graduate School ceremony. Rasmussen was the Vanderbilt Prize Student Scholar in 2019. (photo by Erin O. Smith)

Kristin Kwakwa, PhD, who completed her doctoral degree in cancer biology in October 2020, said it felt very isolating to write her dissertation remotely and defend it on Zoom, but that she was well supported by her mentor, Julie Rhoades, PhD, and her thesis committee.

Kwakwa, now a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis, participated in the commencement ceremony alongside her husband, Kalen Petersen, PhD, who was part of the Class of 2020 but opted to walk in the 2021 ceremony. The two met in 2014 during orientation for the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program, Vanderbilt’s integrative biomedical graduate program, and married in 2018. Petersen, whose PhD is in chemical & physical biology, is also a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University.

Linda Zhang, PhD in Biomedical Informatics, listens to a speaker during the Graduate School commencement ceremony. (photo by Erin O. Smith)

“I’m glad that we can share this experience and add it to our wonderful memories of Vanderbilt and Nashville,” Kwakwa said.

Petersen added, “Returning for commencement feels like a celebration not just of completing our PhDs, but of making it through a truly bizarre and challenging 2020.”

During the 2020-2021 academic year, 62 students earned doctoral degrees in the biomedical sciences from Vanderbilt. On average, graduating students published 4.7 scientific papers as a result of their graduate work. Their research appeared in highly respected journals including Science, Nature, Journal of Biological Chemistry, PNAS and JAMA, according to Abigail Brown, PhD, director of Outcomes Research in the Office of Biomedical Research Education and Training.

Jessica Abner, PhD in Biological Sciences, walks across the stage during the Graduate School commencement ceremony. (photo by Erin O. Smith)

Half of the group gave oral presentations at national or international meetings and 96% gave oral or poster presentations. The students were supported by external fellowships (32%) and/or institutional NIH training grant fellowships (62%).

Most of the PhD graduates (60%) are continuing their training with postdoctoral fellowships, including traditional positions in academic research laboratories as well as non-traditional industry fellowships. The rest have accepted or are seeking employment that does not require a prior postdoctoral fellowship.

School of Nursing

by Nancy Wise

MSN graduates and Adult-Gerontology Acute Care NPs Michael Booth, Austin Rockenhaus and Ashley Arlington pose for a photo at the School of Nursing Commencement. (photo by Susan Urmy)

The Vanderbilt University School of Nursing Class of 2021 celebrated Commencement and Investiture on May 15 with a mix of tradition and variations necessitated by pandemic precautions. The event marked the first time some participants had been on campus since COVID-19 hit in March 2020.

Banner bearer Melina Handley, DNP, led a procession past seated family, friends and graduates, who did not proceed into the tent due to safety precautions. The procession included Dean Linda Norman, DSN, the Valere Potter Menefee Professor of Nursing; student marshals Michael Booth, MSN, and Sarah Hodges, MSN; and alumna association president Hannah Lowe, DNP, MSN.

Norman began her remarks by thanking the graduates for their patience, adaptability and can-do attitudes during the changes brought about by the pandemic.

Rebecca Silvers, DNP, MSN, was named the School of Nursing Founder’s Medalist. (photo by Susan Urmy)

In what was her final Investiture address as dean, she also charged graduates to work for health equity and full practice authority for advanced practice nurses.

“Health inequities have played a major role in the course of this pandemic, and that is wrong. Social determinants of health influenced who became infected, who got sick, who was hospitalized, and who died,” said Norman, who will step down as dean at the end of June.

“All of us must work to overcome health disparities, combat social determinants of health, improve access to care, and change policy,” she said. “Nurse-centered care can, and does, make a difference in improving health equity for individuals and communities. It is my hope that full scope authority will be enacted in every state as a result of the lessons learned from the pandemic.”

In a change with tradition, the school incorporated a pinning ceremony into the Investiture for those graduates finishing their programs in May and those who had not yet participated in a pinning event. Norman gave background on the significance of pinning for the nursing profession, explaining that the school presented pins to MSN graduates and lavaliers to DNP

Jasmine Powell graduated from the Nurse-Midwifery/Family Nurse Practitioner program. (photo by Susan Urmy)
Jasmine Powell graduated from the Nurse-Midwifery/Family Nurse Practitioner program. (photo by Susan Urmy)

graduates in a tradition traced back to Florence Nightingale. She then formally welcomed them to the nursing profession.

Norman introduced Rebecca Silvers, DNP, MSN, as the class’s outstanding student and presented her with the Founder’s Medal. Silvers, who earned a doctor of nursing practice degree and certificate in global health, is a pediatric critical care and neurosurgery nurse practitioner at University of California San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospitals.

Later in the ceremony, Mavis Schorn, PhD, CNM, senior associate dean for Academics, announced that the Board of Trust had conferred upon Norman the title of dean emerita, effective July 1.

The 2021 VUSN class included 347 Master of Science in Nursing and 46 Doctor of Nursing Practice graduates. Three PhD in Nursing Science students were awarded doctorates in Vanderbilt University Graduate School ceremonies.

Linda Norman, DSN, and Marilyn Dubree, MSN, RN, NE-BC, VUMC Executive Chief Nursing Officer, pose for a photo after the ceremony. The occasion marked Norman’s last as dean of the School of Nursing. (photo by Susan Urmy)
Linda Norman, VUSN Dean, and Marilyn Dubree, Executive Chief Nursing Officer, at the School of Nursing commencement. (photo by Susan Urmy)