May 13, 2024

Commencement 2024

Hundreds of Vanderbilt medical, nursing and graduate students took part in last week’s Commencement.

Brandie Taylor, PhD (Cancer Biology), left, Nathaniel Tran, PhD (Health Policy and Services Research) and Kimberly Thibeault, PhD (Neuroscience), wait for the Graduate School commencement ceremony to begin. (photo by Erin O. Smith)
Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s Class of 2024 (photo by Donn Jones)
Master of Nursing graduates Christina Devereaux and Indika-Sha DePriest show off their diplomas. (photo by Susan Urmy)
Emily Thompson, PhD (Hearing and Speech Sciences), waves to family during the Graduate School commencement ceremony. (photo by Erin O. Smith)
FNP graduate Shawkat Youssef Shehatal with Julia Steed, left, PhD, APRN, and Mavis Schorn, PhD, CNM. (photo by Susan Urmy)
School of Medicine graduate Leon Cai, PhD, with his partner, Kathy Lee, MD, who graduated from VUSM in 2022. (photo by Donn Jones)
Arya Nakhe, PhD (Molecular Physiology and Biophysics), is hooded by David Jacobson, PhD during the Graduate School commencement ceremony. (photo by Erin O. Smith)
Danielle Farley, left, and Nicole Arrington prior to the School of Nursing ceremony. (photo by Susan Urmy)
School of Medicine graduate and fourth-year class president Saba Rehman was this year’s flag bearer. (photo by Donn Jones)
Nursing School graduate Taylor Dodd with her husband, Dustin Tellschow, and son, Bennett. (photo by Susan Urmy)
Matthew Vukovich, PhD (Microbe-Host Interactions), shows off his antibody tattoo and shares a laugh with Steven Wall, PhD (Microbe-Host Interactions). Vukovich and Wall conducted antibody-related research in the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center. (photo by Erin O. Smith)
Nurse-Midwifery MSN graduate Vanessa Morales receives her hood. (photo by Susan Urmy)

School of Medicine graduates celebrate Commencement

by Kathy Whitney

Vanderbilt University School of Medicine held its diploma-awarding ceremony for the Class of 2024 on Friday, May 10. Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and CEO of Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Dean of the School of Medicine, welcomed graduates, friends and families to Langford Auditorium.

“It’s an amazing day. It’s finally your turn to sit in these chairs, wear these gowns,” Balser said. “This place, our place, is a brilliant, creative place. Unlike some of our peers…we lead without sharp elbows. We see our warm, welcoming environment not as a sign of weakness, but as an abiding strength … I hope while you were here we made you feel at home, and you found this a to be a warm and generous place, yet also a place that pushed you beyond your boundaries and knew just when to catch you if you started to fall,” Balser said to the graduates.

He focused his address on the theme of courage.

“When we first met during your orientation, I told you one reason we chose you is we believed you have the potential to not only be great physicians and scientists, or both, but to be leaders … Our mission is to train the nation’s health care leaders, and goodness knows, we need them.

“Courageous leadership is a form of professional development. Summoning the courage to engage conflict, whether to resolve a dispute in your clinic or a challenging situation with a colleague, is something good leaders do.”

Kumar Aggarwal, MD, here with Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, was named Founder’s Medalist for the School of Medicine. (photo by Donn Jones)
Sachin Kumar Aggarwal, MD, here with Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, was named Founder’s Medalist for the School of Medicine. (photo by Donn Jones)

This year’s ceremony recognized 95 graduating MD and MD/PhD students in addition to 10 Doctors of Audiology, 4 Masters of Deaf Education, 25 Masters of Science in speech-language pathology, 7 Masters of Genetic Counseling, 6 Masters of Science in applied clinical informatics, 16 Masters of Science in clinical investigation, 2 Masters of Medical Physics and 28 Masters of Public Health.

Graduate Sachin Kumar Aggarwal, MD, was named Founder’s Medalist for the School of Medicine. Jonathan Douds, MD, assistant professor of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, recipient of this year’s Shovel Award and deemed by medical students as their best teacher, read the names of graduates as they received their academic hoods and diplomas. Barbara Gisella Carranza Leon, MD, associate professor of Medicine, was chosen by the students to lead them in the recitation of the Doctor of Medicine Oath.

Kasey Hutcheson, MD, receives her hood from Amy Fleming, MD, MScHPE. (photo by Donn Jones)
Kasey Hutcheson, MD, receives her hood from Amy Fleming, MD, MScHPE. (photo by Donn Jones)

“It has been nothing short of a privilege to begin my medical training at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine,” said graduate Kasey Hutcheson, MD, who is heading to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for her pediatrics residency. “I am immensely grateful to the incredible VUSM and VUMC faculty and staff who have made this journey possible, especially as my class first started medical school during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in July 2020.

“The community here at Vanderbilt is truly unparalleled, not just in clinical acumen or research funding, but in the compassion we foster for our patients and each other. Nowhere was this more apparent to me than during my time as co-executive director of the Shade Tree Clinic. As I watched my classmates dedicate countless hours to the care of underserved patients, it served as a daily reminder that the future of medicine is still bright,” Hutcheson went on to add.

Balser recognized three emeriti faculty who “have served the university with distinction and deep abiding commitment to their fields.” They include Corey Slovis, MD, Professor Emeritus of Emergency Medicine, Carl Zimmerman, MD, Professor Emeritus of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Mary Zutter, MD, Professor Emerita of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology.

VUSN graduates 449 students at 2024 commencement

by Kyle Lubinsky

Nursing Founder’s Medalist Teresa Cagle, left, with VUSN dean Pamela Jeffries, PhD. (photo by Susan Urmy)
Nursing Founder’s Medalist Teresa Cagle, right, with VUSN dean Pamela Jeffries, PhD. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Vanderbilt University School of Nursing celebrated graduating students and their entry into the nursing profession with a pinning ceremony and reception Thursday, May 9, followed by Investiture on Friday, May 10. The ceremonies recognized students completing their programs in August and December 2023 and May 2024. It also marked the first class of Master of Nursing students to graduate from VUSN.

Investiture ceremonies took place on Vanderbilt’s Magnolia Lawn, a new location that was necessitated by the size of the graduating class. The Class of 2024 included 359 Master of Science in Nursing students and 60 Doctor of Nursing Practice students, as well as 30 Master of Nursing students. Seven PhD in Nursing Science students were also recognized. In addition, the school awarded 31 Post-Master’s Certificates in advanced practice specialties to graduates who earned them along with their degrees.

Sophia Berryhill, center, was the first-ever Master of Nursing graduate to receive a VUSN hood. She is flanked by Mary Ann Jessee, PhD, RN, left, and Mavis Schorn, PhD, CNM. (photo by Susan Urmy)
Sophia Berryhill, center, was the first-ever Master of Nursing graduate to receive a VUSN hood. She is flanked by Mary Ann Jessee, PhD, RN, left, and Mavis Schorn, PhD, CNM. (photo by Susan Urmy)

The event marked a milestone for the School of Nursing as its Master of Nursing students are the first generalist nurses the school has graduated since the 1980s. Dean and Valere Potter Distinguished Professor of Nursing Pamela Jeffries, PhD, called them pioneers and advocates.

“You have been equipped with the knowledge, experience, and problem-solving skills to be exceptional registered nurses — and health equity champions,” she said. “You will make a positive impact in the lives of your patients, communities and organizations.”

Teresa Cagle, DNP’24, was selected as Founder’s Medalist for the School of Nursing. Each year, Vanderbilt awards the Founder’s Medal to the top scholar in each of its 10 schools in honor of founder Cornelius Vanderbilt.

“Teresa has dedicated her scholarship and now her career to being an advocate for mental health care,” Jeffries said. “She is determined not only to treat patients with the highest level of evidence-based care but to mentor and educate students as she continues to advocate for mental health care and quality, equitable and safe patient care.” 

“This year’s graduates are remarkably committed and innovative nursing professionals,” Jeffries said. “They chose to advance their nursing education during one of the most challenging periods in our history, and they thrived in their studies and practice. These new Vanderbilt nurses are needed as providers and leaders, and they will make a difference.”

Biomedical Sciences graduates praise Vanderbilt’s supportive research and training environment

by Leigh MacMillan

When Gabriella Robertson, PhD, was considering graduate programs, Vanderbilt University stood out to her as being a place where researchers were conducting rigorous, high-quality science in a collaborative environment that seemed to be very supportive and enriching for trainees. Now looking back, she found her impression to be accurate.

Gabriella Robertson, PhD (Cell and Developmental Biology), left, with her mentor Vivian Gama, PhD. (photo by Erin O. Smith)
Gabriella Robertson, PhD, (Cell and Developmental Biology), left, with her mentor, Vivian Gama, PhD. (photo by Erin O. Smith)

“I think the collaborative spirit is pretty special,” said Robertson, who received her doctoral degree in Cell and Developmental Biology at the Graduate School commencement held May 10 on Alumni Lawn. “You can just walk down the hall to any other lab and pop in and ask questions … kind of crowdsourcing information for your research.”

Robertson participated in a unique training program offered at Vanderbilt, the ASPIRE Path in Molecular Medicine, which integrates basic science research with clinical, disease-based areas. The program offers courses and individual experiences guided by a clinical mentor and basic science mentor.

Working with her primary mentor, Vivian Gama, PhD, in Cell and Developmental Biology, Robertson studied the role of mitochondrial and peroxisomal dynamics in early brain development and in the rare neurodevelopmental disease EMPF1. With her clinical mentor, Kevin Ess, MD, PhD, in Neurology, she was exposed to patients with similar diseases.

“I’ve always been interested in the intersection between basic science, disease modeling and translational research, and the program really confirmed that this is the kind of research I want to be keep doing,” Robertson said. She has started a postdoctoral position at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she is continuing to study mitochondria in both rare developmental and common neurodegenerative diseases.

The supportive training environment at Vanderbilt also stood out to Jorge Rua Fernandez, PhD, who received his doctoral degree in Biochemistry.

Jorge Rue Fernandez, PhD (Biochemistry), right, with his mentor David Cortez, PhD. (photo by Erin O. Smith)
Jorge Rue Fernandez, PhD (Biochemistry), right, with his mentor David Cortez, PhD. (photo by Erin O. Smith)

A native of Peru, Rua Fernandez first came to Vanderbilt for a three-month internship as part of the Research Experience for Peruvian Undergrads (REPU) program.

“The internship influenced me to pursue grad school at Vanderbilt because I could see all of the benefits the school provides to its students: the scientific training, funding resources and a welcoming environment for international students,” he said.

Rua Fernandez is now a co-director of REPU for international internships, and with support from the Clinton Global Initiative, he is working to extend the REPU program to provide scientific internships in Lima, Peru, for undergraduates who do not have the resources for international internships.

As someone with a physical disability, Rua Fernandez said he felt welcomed and supported by his mentor, David Cortez, PhD, and colleagues.

“I have been using a wheelchair since last year and before that I have been doing research while walking with crutches,” Rua Fernandez said. “I am happy that everyone treated me as one more student while acknowledging that I might need some help moving things around. Hopefully this can be an example for future scientists with a physical disability, that everything is possible.”

During the 2023-2024 academic year, 79 students earned doctoral degrees in biomedical sciences from Vanderbilt.

On average, each graduating student published four scientific papers based on their graduate work. Their research appeared in highly respected journals including Nature, Cell, Human Molecular Genetics and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, according to Abigail Brown, PhD, director of the Biomedical Research Education and Training Office of Outcomes Research.

More than half of the students (57%) gave oral presentations at national or international meetings, and 98% gave oral or poster presentations. The students were supported by external fellowships (46%) or institutional NIH training grant fellowships (60%).

A majority of the new PhD graduates (62%) are continuing their training with postdoctoral fellowships, including traditional positions in academic research laboratories as well as nontraditional industry and governmental fellowships. The rest have accepted or are seeking employment that does not require a prior postdoctoral fellowship.