NASA’s top doc to first-year students: ‘Have compassion, confidence and curiosity’

In technology and medicine, things are rapidly changing. But the one thing that doesn’t change — compassion.

This was the message delivered by Dr. J.D. Polk, the agency chief health and medical officer for NASA, who gave the keynote address at Friday’s annual White Coat Ceremony for first-year students of the Jerry M. Wallace School of Osteopathic Medicine.

Polk, who also spoke to students during Thursday’s Grand Rounds, said his advice for students entering their medical school and medical careers comes down to the “Three C’s” …  compassion, confidence and curiosity.

“Have compassion,” Polk said.  “Your white coat represents compassion; despite all of our technology and how much you learn, the one thing you need to bring to the table everyday with your patients is compassion.” 

“Be confident,” he added. “I’ve seen Campbell’s board scores, and they are phenomenal. Have confidence that you are well trained.”

As for curiosity, Polk shared his own experience in med school when he was studying lipids (fats) and thought to himself he’ll never need to know this subject as an ER doctor. 

“Then, I had a rotation in the ICU in residency,” he said, “We were asked to assist with the rescue of 33 Chilean miners — because if you can rescue folks from space, you should be able to from a mine, right? The folks were trapped for days and had been starving. You have to be very careful when you start refeeding them, so there I was in a mine calculating lipids by hand for 33 people. 

“So, have that curiosity.  Every patient you see plays a part in this drama of your medical career.”  

2018 CUSOM White Coat Ceremony

Polk received his degree in osteopathic medicine from the A.T. Still University in Kirksville, Missouri, completed his residency in emergency medicine with the Mt. Sinai hospitals via OhioUniversity and completed his training in aerospace medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch.  In addition to being a former dean of Medicine for Des Moines University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, Polk has served as the assistant secretary (Acting) for health affairs and chief medical officer of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Polk is a Fellow of the American College of Osteopathic Emergency Physicians and a Fellow of the Aerospace Medicine Association.

Polk is well published in the fields of emergency medicine, disaster medicine, space medicine and medical management and has received numerous awards and commendations including citations from the FBI, White House Medical Unit, Association of Air Medical Services and the U.S. Air Force, and has received the NASA Center Director’s Commendation, the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, the National Security and International Affairs Medal and the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal.

Jerry Wallace, university chancellor and the school’s name sake, greeted the students and their guests Friday, charging them to continue Campbell’s legacy of making the world a better place saying, “Shine, shine, shine class of 2022.”

Dr. Barbara Walker, Campbell trustee, American Osteopathic Association trustee, and president-elect of the North Carolina Medical Board, also charged the students to be good stewards of their white coats.  “As a grandmother and retired army colonel,” she said. “I ask that as you wear your white coats, you keep them clean and keep them pressed.”




Sarah Bowman Director of Alumni Relations and Health Policy
Bennett Scarborough Photographer

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