UF President Ben Sasse announces Spring Commencement speakers

Florida photographer-conservationist, surgeon-scientist to address graduates.

Two renowned caretakers — one of wildlife, and the other of people — will serve as the keynote speakers at Spring Commencement at the University of Florida in May, UF President Ben Sasse announced Thursday.

Carlton Ward Jr., a UF alumnus, conservation photographer known for his photos of the elusive Florida panther, and the leading advocate of the Florida Wildlife Corridor to conserve the state’s natural lands and native species, will address graduates at the University-Wide Commencement Ceremony set for 7 p.m. May 3 in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. 

A headshot of Carlton Ward Jr. sitting in a Florida waterway.

Carlton Ward Jr. 

Dr. Gilbert R. Upchurch Jr., a UF vascular surgeon, chair of the department of surgery, and member of the National Academy of Medicine, will be the keynote speaker at the UF Doctoral Ceremony for graduates earning terminal degrees at 9 a.m. May 2 at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

“Carlton Ward Jr. and Dr. Gilbert Upchurch Jr. are absolute rockstars in their professions — and they’re also trailblazing leaders devoted to life-changing and hugely influential work,” said UF President Ben Sasse. “Their journeys to become champions of their domains are amazing, and I’m thrilled that the Class of 2024 will get to hear from them.”

Ward, an eighth-generation Floridian and National Geographic Explorer photographer, is the author, most recently, of “Path of the Panther: New Hope for Wild Florida” and featured in a National Geographic documentary of the same name.

A headshot of Dr. Gilbert R. Upchurch Jr.

Dr. Gilbert R. Upchurch Jr. 

The book and movie showcase photos and videos of the highly endangered Florida panther in its natural habitat. Most were only made possible by camera and video traps that Ward and his team at Wildpath, his conservation advocacy organization, spent years painstakingly setting up and maintaining deep in Florida’s most remote wildlands.
Ward began his photography career with the Smithsonian in Central Africa and published his first book, “The Edge of Africa,” in 2003. 

He then turned to his native Florida, publishing “Florida Cowboys” in 2009. Experiencing first-hand the loss of rural and wild Florida, he founded the Florida Wildlife Corridor project in 2010 and led the campaign for the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act. That legislation, unanimously adopted by the Florida Legislature in 2021, has spurred the conservation of 200,000 acres of undeveloped land statewide — part of 10 million acres of protected conservation lands within the 18-million-acre Corridor.
“My time and experience at UF were incredibly important to me — and shaping my vision for the Florida Wildlife Corridor,” said Ward, who earned his master’s of science in ecology from UF in 2008. “I can’t wait to share my story with the graduates — how the pursuit of the Florida panther, and protecting the land it needs to survive, can be inspiration in creating the paths for their lives ahead.”
Upchurch is an acclaimed clinician, researcher, and educator in the treatment of aortic and vascular disease. 
He is the editor or associate editor of 17 books, a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, American Heart Association and Society for Vascular Surgery — and was inducted into the National Academy of Medicine in 2021. He earned his MD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and did his medical training at Harvard University, Boston University, and the Cleveland Clinic.
His clinical specialty is treating thoracoabdominal aortic aneurysms, a type of aneurysm that occurs in the aorta, the body’s largest blood vessel that extends from the heart to the abdomen. His research focuses on how such aneurysms develop. Among many other research initiatives, he was part of a team that designed an artificial intelligence system to assist with doctors’ decision-making in identifying at-risk patients during early hospitalization.  
“These graduates have notched an incredible accomplishment in earning their doctorates, and it’s an honor to have the opportunity to speak to them,” Upchurch said. “I look forward to sharing a few lessons from my career as a surgeon scientist in my speech and to celebrating them as we send them off on their next big adventure.”

About 8,500 students are expected to graduate at Spring Commencement. Graduates are expected to attend two ceremonies: the University-Wide Commencement Ceremony, at which bachelor’s, master’s and specialists degrees will be conferred, and their college recognition ceremony, where they will be individually recognized for their accomplishment. More information is available at www.commencement.ufl.edu.

UF News March 28, 2024