The FIU Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine has a single student graduating this summer. And the university is creating a virtual commencement ceremony just for him.
"That's really amazing," says Rajib Dutta, who will be receiving a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences. "I am so grateful to FIU and the college of medicine for the opportunity and support."
Traditionally, Ph.D. students from the college of medicine graduate alongside medical students or graduates from other health professions like nursing and public health. But the HWCOM Class of 2020 medical students already graduated in April, and the other colleges will hold individual virtual commencements. That leaves Dutta to graduate all by himself.
For the past five years, the 34-year-old has worked as a graduate research assistant in the lab of Hoshang Unwalla in the Department of Immunology and Nano-Medicine. Dutta's research focused on improving the quality of life for people living with HIV. His studies explored the molecular mechanisms that lead to comorbidities—simultaneous chronic diseases— in the lungs of HIV smokers and non-smokers.
"Lung diseases such as COPD, pulmonary hypertension and pneumonia are emerging as significant comorbidities in HIV-infected patients," he said. "This is exacerbated in HIV patients who are addicted to nicotine and smoke tobacco."
Research is needed to develop therapeutics that can restore, slow down or stop the decline of lung function in these diseases.
A few weeks ago, Dutta successfully defended his dissertation, Deciphering the microRNAome in HIV associated lung comorbidities. His parents, who live in his native Bangladesh, had made arrangements, including procuring visas, to attend his graduation. They did not want to miss this significant milestone in their son's life. In their family's life. Then came COVID-19. And all plans changed.
"They are very excited and proud of me and always supported me, but now everything is on hold," said Dutta.
However, Dutta's parents will be able to see their son graduate, virtually. On Aug. 2 at 2 p.m., their son's commencement ceremony goes live online. It will be midnight in Bangladesh. If they can't tune in at that time, no problem, the link will stay open so they can watch anytime.
"Graduation is a once-in-a-lifetime event for any student. We want to make sure it will be a memorable experience for all of our graduates, including Dr. Dutta," said Cameron Jones, director of commencement ceremonies at FIU. "If that means creating a virtual commencement ceremony just for him, we are happy to oblige."
Dutta still hopes to take part in a traditional, in-person ceremony in either Fall or Spring, assuming the university will able to return to the traditional format by then. And hopefully, his parents will be able to join him.
He says he's received several postdoctoral job offers and is looking forward to continuing his career in biomedical research in South Florida.