As the top U.S. leader in the scientific battle to combat COVID-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci told the graduates of Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences how much they are needed on the medical frontlines.
“This is truly an extraordinary time to launch a career in the biomedical sciences. The challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic have brought into sharp focus the world's need for the science and art of biochemistry, virology, immunology, and the many related disciplines you have studied at Mayo, as well as the imperative of robust support for science in general,” he said during Saturday’s commencement ceremony. “The expertise, energy, passion and commitment that you soon will bring to the world amid COVID-19 come at the most opportune time. Rarely before has the world so badly needed the skills inherent in the many disciplines represented by this class.”
Fauci spoke to 62 graduates from the Class of 2021 and 58 graduates from the Class of 2020 in the virtual ceremony. Mayo Clinic also presented him with an honorary degree.
This marks the first time a separate graduation was held for Biomedical students. In the past, they were included in the Mayo Clinic Medical School ceremony. The medical school’s 2021 graduation was held May 23.
“Commencement at Mayo Clinic has historically been a mix of both the medical and graduate schools. However, with the substantive recent growth of both schools at the Phoenix and Jacksonville campuses, we are now holding separate events,” said Biomedical Sciences Dean Dr. Stephen Ekker. “To fully recognize the wonderful work of these fantastic Mayo Clinic students, we have developed our first commencement focused on celebrating and inspiring the next generation of leaders in biomedical science and education as they progress to their next steps in the professional careers, skilled practitioners that are needed now more than ever.”
During his speech, Fauci recalled his own graduation in 1968. That was a time when some experts were predicting infectious diseases would become extinct due to vaccines and antibiotics.
“I had a sinking feeling that I might be obsolete, even before my career had begun. Unfortunately, the pundits were dead wrong. They had declared victory prematurely,” he said.
Fauci went on to help combat several viral threats, including HIV, swine flu, Zika, Ebola and, of course, COVID-19.
“It (COVID-19) indeed is the perfect storm of an emerging infectious disease, as I have dreaded for years. It is my worst nightmare as a scientist, a clinician, and a public health official,” he said.
He stressed that scientists and medical professionals need to refrain from underplaying the scope of a new disease or virus, because the first cases are just “the eyes of the hippopotamus,” with the bulk of the problem still submerged from view.
While COVID-19 has proven to be a deadly and difficult problem, Fauci said medical research is what has kept the pandemic from being much worse.
“It is science that has been our savior for the speed and efficacy with which highly efficacious vaccines were developed,” he said.
Fauci did add that science can’t solve all the health care problems, like the ones caused by racism and inequality.
“Our country's experience with COVID-19 has put a spotlight on one of the great failings in our society — the lack of health equity. COVID-19 exposed long-standing inequities that have undermined the physical, social, economic and emotional health of racial and ethnic minorities," he said. “If ever there is going to be a real incentive for us to make a commitment to address the social determinants of health, it has got to be right now.”