Gilbert Upchurch's Spring 2024 doctoral commencement speech

Dr. Gilbert Upchurch is a vascular surgeon, the chair of UF’s department of surgery and a member of the National Academy of Medicine. He specializes in treating aortic aneurysms and leads pioneering science on their causes and treatment. UF’s surgery department performed some of the first COVID-19-related lung transplants in the nation under his leadership as chair.

Graduates: It’s an honor to have this chance to speak to you and to celebrate your achievement.

My memories from my own commencement are a bit hazy. But I do remember that my parents were deeply relieved. 

They were relieved because, all through medical school, my grades had been sent to my address instead of theirs. This had made my parents doubt that I was actually in medical school. 

Seeing me be a part of the graduation festivities allowed my parents to relax and enjoy the moment. 

Moms, dads, families, friends: Relax. Enjoy. Celebrate.

Your loved ones really are graduating from this exceptional university with an incredibly prestigious degree!

Graduates: Many of you have been working on your degrees from 3 to 7 years. As you prepare to cross the stage, I want to recognize your grit and perseverance.

But today is a beginning, not an end. So, as you move on to your next chapter, I want to share three personal lessons from my own career as a surgeon-scientist.

My first lesson is to follow your curiosity wherever it leads you, even if it takes you outside your field. Especially if it takes you outside your field.

I once worked with a vascular surgeon named Dr. Lazar Greenfield. 

Early in his career, Dr. Greenfield operated on a 23-year-old patient who had been severely injured in a motorcycle accident. He thought he saved the young man’s life, but two days after the operation he died from a blood clot breaking off from his legs and pelvis and going to his lungs.

Dr. Greenfield was crushed. But he had an idea for a device that might help.

It happened that he was working with a petroleum engineer on another project. The engineer told him about a mechanism used by the oil industry for trapping sludge in buried oil pipelines. The surgeon and the engineer teamed up, built a prototype in a garage -- and together invented what is now known as the Greenfield filter. 

You see, the “Greenfield” filter prevents clots in the legs from traveling to the lungs. Today, the Greenfield filter, the device conceived by a surgeon and an engineer, has literally saved thousands of lives.

As you move on to your own research or leadership, you’ll often have ideas outside your own field. 

That’s not a reason to discard them. It’s a reason to pursue them. Follow your curiosity wherever it leads you… I encourage you to go out find your own version of a petroleum engineer to help!

My second lesson is to have faith in failure.

I get that “Have faith in failure” sounds weird. 

Yet, I am constantly reminded that the times we fail are when we have the opportunity to grow most. 

Having worked for two years toward getting into medical school, I was wait-listed at three different medical schools. As August came and went, it became clear that I was not going to get into medical school! This meant restudying for the MCAT and re-applying. 

It sounds like a wasted year, right? But in fact, I was hired to work in a vascular surgery laboratory — with a real salary and benefits! 

When I did go to medical school the following year, I was fueled by this failure and became the best surgery student in my class. The class ahead of me, the one that I did not get into, had been full of really good surgery students, or “gunners,” who might have left me in the dust.

My success in surgery translated into me matching at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. That was great. Even better was having the good fortune of meeting my future wife, Nancy, on my first rotation at the Boston’s Children’s Hospital.

Graduates, all failures are painful. But have faith in failure. It can bring you something good. Maybe something really wonderful, even something priceless: A life partner. 

Nancy, thank you for 33 wonderful years together!

My third and final lesson is this: You are ultimately remembered for helping others.
After being away from the University of Michigan for 14 years, I was invited back recently to give a lecture. It was great to see old friends and spend the day at the Cardiovascular Center, a building I had practiced in. 

An old partner introduced my talk with a story that I had forgotten.

He reminded me I had been invited to write a review article for the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine on aortic aneurysms. I had asked and had approved that it was ok to have a co-author, who was a young faculty member at the time. 

However, when we submitted the article, the editor wrote back and said that my co-author was not “senior” enough to be included as a co-author. Yet, he had done the majority of the work! 

I wrote the editor back that and stated that if he was not allowed to be a co-author, we would withdraw the manuscript. 

Graduates, you are all leaders. You are leaders by definition of earning doctorates from this great university. This means you are entrusted – no, you are expected -- to help others when sometimes they are not capable of helping themselves.

And ultimately, you will be remembered for helping others, as I was remembered when I returned to Michigan and my old junior partner introduced me before my talk.

The part of the story that my old partner forgot to tell was that after withdrawing the paper from the NEJM, we got it accepted to Circulation, another high-impact journal. 

My old junior partner, who is now a named full professor, was rewarded by becoming the first author on the article rather than the last!

I will always feel good that we got to have the last laugh on the NEJM! 

I appreciate the honor of providing a few reflections for you on this, your day, celebrating your official recognition as leaders and experts in your fields.
[Holds up scalpel]

I want to conclude by showing you this. It’s a surgeon’s scalpel.

My scalpel is the tool that represents my life’s calling in surgery and my own special expertise for healing people.

Each of you today is graduating with your own tools, which you have been exquisitely trained to wield.

Historians: Your tools are your books and archives, with which you can tell our human truths.

Artists: You have paintbrushes, chisels, or digital tools — to create beauty, or to make people feel a little less lonely.

Chemists: Titration flasks, for transforming matter into useful things.

Electrical engineers: Logic analyzers, for building solutions.

Geologists: With your rock hammers or spectrometers, you can take apart and piece together the origin story of our planet.

Graduates, as you earn your doctorates today, I urge you to use your expertise and your tools to do your own little bit of good in the world, as I try to do with my scalpel.

Follow your curiosity wherever it leads you, like Dr. Greenfield finding a solution for blood clots from those oil pipes with an engineer. Have faith in failure — for you might find your own wonderful Nancy.  And finally, you’ll be best remembered – in fact, you’ll be loved — for helping others.

Congratulations Doctoral Class of Spring 2024!

UF News May 2, 2024