Office of the President


Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar
Commencement Address

by David J. Skorton, M.D.

As prepared for presentation
May 8, 2008
Doha, Qatar

Today is a historic day for the Qatar Foundation, which, with today's ceremonies, achieves an important milestone in its vision for Education City. Today is a momentous day for our 15 new physicians, the first students to earn M.D. degrees from Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. It is a most memorable day for their families, and for the faculty and staff members of Weill Cornell Medical College, in Qatar and in New York City, who have been instrumental to the development of these graduates as medical professionals. It is a very proud day for Cornell University, as we celebrate the successful culmination of the first phase of a grand experiment. In this experiment, we have sought, at the request of and with the support of Her Highness and the Qatar Foundation, to transplant the fragile seed of American style medical education to another culture, another country, another context. I fervently hope that today will also stand in history as a great day for the people of Qatar and the Arabian Gulf region, signaling the start of a new age of quality medical education, biomedical research, and patient care that will benefit the entire region, and also signaling a new chapter in the strong history of friendship and partnership between our societies.

There are many whose leadership has brought us to this day, and I want to recognize them. First and foremost, I want to thank Her Highness Sheikha Mozah and the Qatar Foundation for their vision and commitment to this project. I want to thank my friend, mentor and colleague, Dr. Antonio M. Gotto, Jr., dean of the Weill Cornell Medical College and Cornell Provost for Medical Affairs, for seeing the potential for this venture as early as the year 2000 and working diligently to ensure its success. I thank Dr. Daniel Alonso for serving as the dean of this historic new venture and for guiding it, in partnership with his senior staff, so ably in its first years. I thank the faculty and staff of WCMC in Qatar and WCMC in New York for their commitment to creating a program of the highest quality. I thank James Mingle, Cornell University counsel, for his leadership and care in developing the partnership agreement. I thank Sandy and Joan Weill, Barbara Friedman and other Cornell leaders for their vision, for their leadership, for their commitments of time and talent. As chair of the Weill Cornell Medical College Board of Overseers, from the start Mr. Weill understood the value of educational diplomacy and has skillfully overseen this magnificent and pioneering program. I thank the Weill Cornell Medical College Board of Overseers and the Cornell University Board of Trustees for their confidence and support, including the strong leadership of Peter Meinig, chair of the Cornell Board of Trustees.

At this historic moment, Cornell becomes the first American university to award its M.D. degree overseas. When the pre-medical program began in 2002, and even when the medical program began two years later, there was a major question: Can one transplant the complex and intricate process of creating physicians in the American tradition to another culture?

Today we have our answer in our first M.D. graduating class. The class includes 9 women and 6 men. They have come to WCMC-Q from a variety of cultures. Like all students now in the pre-medical and medical programs at WCMC-Q, they have had opportunities to carry out research. In their third year, they had clinical clerkships, supervised by WCMC-Q faculty, in the facilities of the Hamad Medical Corporation. They spent part of their 4th year in the U.S., carrying out medicine sub-internships at Weill Cornell/New York Presbyterian and taking clinical electives there and at other U.S. medical schools. Throughout their time with us, they have demonstrated extraordinary commitment and a high and admirable level of achievement.

On my first visit to WCMC-Q, I brought with me Sherlock Holmes books. To my surprise and satisfaction, many of the students already knew about Sherlock Holmes and the fact that the author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a physician. They also knew about Dr. Joseph Bell, physician and professor at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, who served as the inspiration for Conan Doyle's famous character. Dr. Joseph Bell was known for his powers of observation and deduction, and under his tutelage Conan Doyle learned the importance of rapid and accurate appreciation of the sometimes small and subtle differences between health and disease. During the course of our time together, at that earlier visit, the students and I were able to enjoy a cross-cultural conversation about the qualities required for excellence in medical practice, and I undoubtedly learned as much from the students as they did from me.

These graduates have been perfecting their skills of observation and deduction, along with learning the many other facets of medicine that are important today. My own very favorable impression of them has been confirmed by more quantitative means. Their scores on standardized tests, for example, are indistinguishable from those of our students at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. They did very well in the competitive "match" program for residencies, including at the Hamad Medical Corporation in Qatar and at some of the top institutions in the U.S. where they will pursue specialties that include family medicine, internal medicine, surgery, radiology, obstetrics and gynecology, emergency medicine, neurosurgery and anesthesiology.

At a time of ongoing and escalating world tensions, WCMC-Q is a most positive achievement far beyond the world of medical education. Lack of well-trained physicians and other medical professionals is a significant contributor to the health disparities that afflict so many parts of the world, and one that higher education is well-suited to address. As these students become practitioners around the world, they have the opportunity to bring medical care to underserved populations and encourage others to seek medical education. Some may also continue to advance medical science through involvement in basic and clinical research. And still others may contribute to medical education as the next generation of medical faculty.

As impressive as the achievements of these students are, they are only the beginning of what will soon be possible at WCMC-Q. Adding to the educational mission of WCMC-Q, we instituted a program of research in 2008, with focus on four areas: gene therapy, embryonic stem cell biology, vaccine development and neurogenetics studies. We expect to recruit 18 scientists to WCMC-Q for this effort, six at a senior level and 12 at the junior level. The research will be conducted in Doha, and we expect it to result in the training of clinicians and research associates and the building of research capacity in Qatar. Within 5 years, we expect that more than 100 people will be engaged in basic, translational and clinical research, giving Qatar a vibrant and sustainable scientific research community.

The third critical component of Cornell's efforts in Qatar is in the area of patient care. We look forward to expanding the opportunities for clinical education available to WCMC-Q students at the Hamad Medical Corporation with the opening of the Sidra Medical and Research Center, a world-class hospital to be located within 300 meters of WCMC-Q and scheduled to open in 2011. Cornell is immensely proud to be a partner in this effort and to assist the Qatar Foundation and the people of the Arabian Gulf to achieve their aspirations for better health care and in this way to bring our cultures all closer together.

As president of Cornell University and as a physician, I offer today's graduates this charge:

  • Remember what it is like to be a pioneer and have the courage to lead throughout your career.
  • Remember what it is like to be part of a new venture and seek other opportunities to take a risk toward personal good and the greater good.
  • Accept your responsibility as physicians to be a true partner with your patients: to prevent, diagnose, treat, and often cure disease, but always to comfort, always to empathize with the patient and the family, always to remain humble and grateful.

Congratulations to you all. All of us wish you well as you embark on the next phase of your preparation for lives of service to the benefit of the people of the world.