UConn Health Commencement Goes Virtual in a COVID-19 World

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic UConn Health found a way to honor its graduating Class of 2020 of 236 new physicians and scientists headed to health care’s frontlines.

Kathryn Topalis, the 2020 commencement UConn medical school student speaker, virtually delivering her address to her fellow Class of 2020 graduates.

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic UConn Health found a way to honor its graduating Class of 2020 of 236 new physicians and scientists headed to health care’s frontlines.

On the afternoon of May 11 the 49th Commencement was held virtually online conferring 244 degrees upon the graduates of UConn School of Medicine, UConn School of Dental Medicine, and the UConn Graduate School programs.

The virtual commencement ceremony still upheld the schools nearly 50 year tradition of commencement exercises from the keynote address, student speeches, and even the reading of each graduate’s name and degree. UConn mailed each student their academic regalia robe and hat so that they could wear them during the ceremony if they wished and in celebratory photos.

UConn dental school’s virtual Class of 2020 commencement student speaker was Erica Quinones.

“This is not at all how I envisioned my graduation day from UConn dental,” shared Erica Quinones, from Trumbull, Conn. as the dental school’s student commencement speaker heading to New York Medical College for her general practice residency.  “We find ourselves under very new circumstances, in the most challenging of times. Just because today is not what you pictured, does not mean you will not remember it for the rest of your life.”

Quinones added: “Class of 2020 will forever be the class that persevered despite this pandemic. “To the resilient class of 2020, I say congratulations! We did it!”

Medical student commencement speaker, Kathryn Topalis of Simsbury, shared: “I think we can no longer deny that the current pandemic has fundamentally changed medicine, and how we think about our careers and ourselves as physicians will forever be altered. But now we face an intern year that will undoubtedly look far different that any we could have imagined. We will be forced to place our own health at risk for the benefit of others.”

This year’s keynote address was given by Dr. Peter J. Deckers, dean emeritus of the medical school and longtime surgical oncologist at UConn Health. He shared with the graduates some of his insights and experiences from across his 54 year medical career. He served as dean of the School of Medicine from 1995-2008 and also executive vice president for health affairs from 2000-2008.

Keynote speaker Dr. Peter J. Deckers of UConn Health sharing his commencement address.

“Today, very tragically, the coronavirus has created a true exigency – a worldwide urgency to control viruses that destroy our cellular RNA and immune systems. Science has done this before; witness the horror of polio that some of us knew as children. Science, perhaps through the efforts of one of you, will do it again,” said Deckers. “I believe you are entering a new season of light – a new era of profound biomedical discovery. Do ‘wonderous’ things.”

Dr. Bruce T. Liang, dean of the medical school agrees: “Your future is extremely bright despite the ups and downs. You are a special class. You pioneered the introduction and implementation of our new curriculum MDELTA. You are also special in that your match to first choice of residency tops the 3 previous classes. Thank you for a job well-done.”

“You are trailblazers,” said Dr. Steve Lepowsky, interim dean of the dental school. “You are our first class to complete the new team based biomedical sciences curriculum, and you were the first class to face a global pandemic head-on. I congratulate you on all of your remarkable achievements. You will forever be a part of our UConn Dental family.”

This year’s 2020 UConn Health Board of Directors Faculty Recognition Award was given during commencement to dental faculty member Dr. Alan G. Lurie, professor and chair of the Division of Oral and Maxillofacial Diagnostic Sciences and chair of the Section of Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology.

“It’s an honor to be recognized by UConn Health’s Board of Directors,” Lurie said. “I’m grateful for all of the opportunities that have been afforded to me during my time at UConn Health, and I look forward to continuing to give back to my faculty colleagues, patients, and students.”

Barbara E, Kream, Ph.D, associate dean of the UConn Graduate School, commended this year’s graduating class.

UConn Graduate School student commencement speaker Spencer Keilich. virtually addressing the graduates.

“Never has it been so critical to have scientists, scholars, health care providers and public health practitioners work together to deal with the unprecedented situation we are now experiencing,” said Kream. “I am so proud of our graduates for the terrific people they are and for the great work they have accomplished.”

UConn Graduate School student speaker, Spencer Keilich from Windsor, has already been hired as a staff scientist at Quantitative Cell Diagnostix (QCDx) in Farmington, part of the Technology Incubation Program (TIP) at UConn Health. He is investigating how to isolate and identify rare tumor cells in patient’s blood to detect early cancers.

“Many of us may not be treating patients directly but from our research comes understanding. From that understanding comes treatments. Then vaccines and then cures to modern ailments that plague ordinary life,” said Keilich. “Even today as many of us shelter in place, we are working from home to analyze data, review literature and persevere. We continue to rise, adapt and evolve with the current forces against us.”

He added: “We will keep fighting, keep giving, and keep going.”

Dean Liang concluded: “Class of 2020 congratulations. Hold high the UConn flag.”


 Watch the replay of UConn Health’s virtual commencement celebration here.