Last Lecture Inspires Students in Turbulent Times

Monday, April 26, 2021

It was a command performance that did not disappoint. Students across all UCSF schools chose Dr. Peter Chin-Hong to give the 2021 UCSF Last Lecture in a historically atypical virtual format on April 6. This famed tradition was started by a Carnegie Mellon professor back in 2007 and poses the question, “If you had one last lecture to give, what would you say?”

Dr. Chin-Hong, the UCSF Associate Dean for Regional Campuses and a Professor of Medicine in infectious diseases, presented a virtual setting with island scenery, Calypso music, and a CGI hummingbird to transport the audience to his place of birth: Trinidad and Tobago.

His choice of ambience conveyed the main takeaway of the talk.

“We have to fight the pressure to flatten someone into one-dimensional caricature,” he said.

Dr. Chin-Hong thanked everyone who supported him throughout his career. And he reserved a special thanks for his students.

“You even laughed at my dad jokes, and no one laughs at my dad jokes,” he said.

As one of the co-leaders of the Pathogens & Host Defense block in the School of Medicine, Dr. Chin-Hong became a student favorite. His connection to his students was evident as he intertwined his own struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic with those of his students.

“We shared deep sorrows, and we bawled together,” he said. “And during this past year of COVID’s suffering, and darkness, we drew strength from each other.”

He expressed deep gratitude towards the people who were integral in getting him through this difficult time — namely the women in his life, including his mom, his grandmother and our very own Dr. Michelle Albert, UCSF School of Medicine Associate Dean of Admissions.

He told the story of his mother and aunt’s solo journey from desperate hunger in post-Japanese occupation and civil war in China onto a “rickety boat” on the South China Sea to British-controlled Hong Kong.

A decade later, Dr. Chin-Hong’s father had saved enough to pay for their travel to Fifth Company Village in the poor south of Trinidad — not the touristy scenery of vacation brochures, but “the bush.”

“My first memory of my mother was movement,” he said. “She was rushing there, she’s rushing there to get goods for customers who would come to the front of the shop. She was just like this dynamo.”

The demands of the family business were all-encompassing as Dr. Chin-Hong’s mother took the role of chief innovation officer, chief financial officer, and customer-facing worker dealing with villagers who treated her with scepticism.

Meanwhile, she was also a cook, nurse, custodian, cheerleader, and mom.

“She took care of everything. She took charge of everything,” he said.

He recalled the Chinese proverb, “Women hold up half the sky,” but with a caveat.

“It sounds so lovely and inspiring,” he said. “Exactly what makes it effective propaganda and why it was part of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward is that women were called to work in the fields, but they were still expected to do work at home.”

He counselled students to “always appreciate the fullness, the whole context of phrases, of statements. Only then we can get full meaning and anticipate any consequences.”

Dr. Chin-Hong’s grandmother, who guarded the family shop’s finances, was also a force to be reckoned with.

He recounted his awe at the sight of panicked villagers turning to his half-Indian, half-Scottish grandmother for help when a massive, venomous snake was found perched on a balcony.

She calmly grabbed her hunting rifle and blew it “to a pile of eviscerated, motionless flesh.”

“Right in front of my eyes, Granny transformed from Mrs. Doubtfire into this venomous snake assassin,” he said.

The experience taught him a lesson that he never forgot.

“Seeing the multi-textured complexity that was my grandmother was like looking at the Northern Range in Trinidad,” he said.

“And once you look at these mountains, they’re strong and steely, but stare at them a little bit more and you would see how the light plays across the face of the mountain, and you’d see the mountain in a different way.

“You see the trees.”

Dr. Albert was yet another woman who played a powerful role in Dr. Chin-Hong’s life. He recounted the unfortunate event that became their bonding moment.

“The hate came like a tropical thunderstorm, sudden with thunder claps, lightning,” he said.

It was April 8, 2020. Dr. Chin-Hong and Dr. Albert were on a virtual panel for an Association of Black Cardiologists event titled At the Heart of the Matter, Unmasking the Invisibility of COVID-19 in Diverse Populations,

Suddenly, the chat sidebar filled up for all participants to see.

“‘Go blow yourselves up. No one cares, you [bleep],’” he recalled it saying. “We were Zoom bombed. There was no way to stop this. Our technical team was unable to eject the bombers, and we were caught in this ongoing onslaught of hate.”

Dr. Chin-Hong remembers his increasing anxiety and doubt over what to do when Dr. Albert took over.

“She said we should soldier on,” he said. “She gave us a pep talk. She told us she loved us, she cared for us, we are doing a great job. And she gave the final word, ultimately. These final four words, ‘We will finish this.’”

Then the chat bar filled with messages of love and support, thousands of them, overwhelming the haters, Dr. Chin-Hong said.

The event, although deeply troubling, brought the two deans closer, allowing them to become trusted allies and close friends.

As their relationship grew over the course of the pandemic, Dr. Albert, “a fellow spirit from the Caribbean” country of Guyana, helped Dr. Chin-Hong find his voice and ultimately grounded him during what were very uncertain times.

“Mentally, emotionally, physically, I felt spent, I felt exhausted, but I kept going on thanks to people like Michelle, thanks to people who gave me that wind,” he said.

The Last Lecture included a guest appearance from Dr. Albert, where the friends lauded each other’s skills and talents before arguing over which Caribbean country has the better food — no consensus was reached.

Having found his voice, Dr. Chin-Hong has made media appearances over the past year, which were highlighted in the lecture.

He said he became enraged by incidents of hate fueled by anti-Asian rhetoric, violence against protestors, neglect of prisoners in San Quentin being exposed to COVID. So he appeared on national and international media, and worked with legal experts to dismantle injustices, while keeping his students and family at the forefront of his mind.

In his final thoughts, Dr. Chin-Hong brought the audience back to the Calypso music of his home country, which was central to his identity growing up.

He explained its roots in revolution, as a means of expressing daily struggle and criticizing racial inequities among 17th century African slaves in Trinidad.

“I have profound faith in all of you to be heroic in the face of what life throws at us,” he said. “Listen to the songs your ancestors sing to you. Be mindful of the songs you sing to others.”

As a future physician with aspects of my identity that I want to hold true to, it was inspiring to see someone in such an important academic medical leadership position stay true to his identity and express his passions, all while holding close those most important to him.

Dr. Chin-Hong seems to truly live by his parting advice to “Dance like no one is watching.” Dance we shall, Dr. Chin-Hong.

Watch the entire Last Lecture 2021 on YouTube here.