Vaccine development lead asks UT medical graduates to be aggressive in career pursuits

·3 min read

May 22—Speaking in front of friends, family, faculty, and more than 200 graduates of the University of Toledo's College of Medicine and Life Sciences, Dr. Matt Hepburn, the vaccine development lead for Operation Warp Speed, told the future doctors, pharmacists, and psychiatrists to "press" the status quo and relentlessly pursue their goals Friday at Savage Arena.

"I'm frequently asked the question, 'With Operation Warp Speed, how were you so successful as a team, a public-private partnership, as a community?'" the retired Army colonel said after he was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree during the ceremony. "Vaccines typically take a decade or more to get approved. We had three in less than a year."

"So graduates, I ask you to press," he said.

Dr. Hepburn, an Ann Arbor resident, was asked to lead the Department of Defense's efforts in coronavirus vaccine development having a background as an infectious disease physician and having spent 23 years in the military. Critics said the vaccine couldn't be done before the end of the year, but the team pressed on.

Operation Warp Speed, which started under former President Trump's administration and was renamed the Countermeasures Acceleration Group under President Biden, is a partnership between the DOD and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Dr. Hepburn advised the graduates to "nurture" their passion for helping people, and to dream big.

"Never forget that the most important impact that you're going to have is the example that you set," he said.

Parents, friends, and relatives piled into the arena where certain chairs were marked off to maintain social distancing. It was the first in-person commencement ceremony since 2019 for the former Medical College of Ohio, a privilege not lost on UT president Dr. Gregory Postel, despite the continued restrictions.

"On behalf of the University of Toledo, we are excited to have the opportunity to celebrate the Class of 2021's achievements and resilience, together and in-person," the president said to a thunderous applause.

A total of 222 degrees were given to 220 graduates, which included: 166 doctor of medicine degrees, five doctor of philosophy degrees, and 51 master's degrees.

One medical graduate, Luke Zona, a Sylvania native who was awarded the 2020 Excellence in Public Health Award by the United States Public Health Service for his work to create the Toledo Naloxone Outreach program, told The Blade the past 1 1/2 years have prepared the class to be able to adapt to any challenges that may arise in the future.

"Coming out of this, we're going to be more prepared in some ways for things to just dramatically change in medicine," said Mr. Zona, who will soon begin his psychiatric residency at Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. "And we'll be ready for those changes to occur."

Mr. Zona, who was also UT's recipient of the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Awards presented by The Arnold P. Gold Foundation, said he was excited to begin his next journey.

"I feel like it's really just the beginning of having a professional identity," he said. "...Medical school is like being a stem cell, you're just undifferentiated, you do a little bit of everything and then once you start residency, you really hone into your focus and you're training. So it's a great stepping stone."