Gopal delivers winter commencement address

UNC Lineberger's Satish Gopal, MD, MPH, delivered UNC-Chapel Hill's Winter Commencement address.

Be audacious in your pursuits, but not in a flashy, shallow way, UNC Lineberger's Satish Gopal, MD, MPH, told graduates at the Winter Commencement ceremony at the Dean Smith Center on Sunday.

“Undergird your audacity with equal commitment to incrementalness,” Gopal said. “To be bold, but also boring, and to painstakingly do the daily reading and thinking and experimenting and measuring and reevaluating when absolutely no one is watching or paying attention, without which big, bold solutions to big, bold problems simply can’t be actualized.”

The two-time Carolina graduate, who earned his undergraduate degree from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1997 and a master’s degree in public health in 2000, is now the director of the cancer program at UNC Project-Malawi. He is a UNC Lineberger member, an adjunct assistant professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School and an associate professor of medicine in the UNC School of MedicineHis selection as speaker continued the tradition of having a Carolina faculty member deliver the December Commencement address.

The ceremony marked the graduation of 491 undergraduates, 567 master’s degree students, 99 doctoral students and nine professional students. And, as Jim Delany of the General Alumni Association reminded those in attendance, the ceremony also marked the beginning of their membership in that exclusive club of 322,000-plus Carolina alumni.

Chancellor Carol L. Folt presided over the ceremony, with a platform party of representatives from the UNC Board of Governors, the University Board of Trustees and the General Alumni Association.

In her opening remarks, Folt shared inspirational stories and remarks from Nobel prize winners Albert Einstein and late UNC School of Medicine professor Oliver Smithies, inventors Orville and Wilbur Wright and Preston Dobson, who founded Carolina’s Black Student Movement as an undergraduate 50 years ago and “helped us create a more diverse, inclusive place.”

Like these remarkable individuals, Folt told the graduates, “wonder and creativity, grit and determination, never giving up and believing in yourself will propel you forward throughout your lives.”

During the ceremony, the sky was cloudy gray in Chapel Hill and deepest black in Lilongwe, Malawi, where it was 9 p.m. But a livestream presentation of the ceremony connected the Smith Center and UNC Project-Malawi under a virtual Carolina blue sky.

“Friends and colleagues at our UNC program in Malawi are watching this on the livestream as we speak – 8,000 miles and seven time zones away — which is important simply as testament to the amazing interconnectedness and reach of the global UNC family,” said Gopal, who is also an oncologist and infectious disease physician.

After expressing his thanks to Folt for the opportunity to speak, Gopal made what he called “a slightly embarrassing disclosure.”

“I left UNC to attend medical school at Duke. I’m so sorry for that,” Gopal said, as the graduates, friends and family laughed. “But in my defense, and despite my rented Duke gown for today’s commencement, my college basketball allegiances have survived completely intact.”

Turning to more serious topics, Gopal spoke of his work treating and studying cancer in Malawi, where he and his family have lived since 2012. His work and that of his colleagues in the small country in southern Africa is relevant to the Tar Heel state, he said.

“In Malawi, we have opportunities to exhaustively study cancers that occur rarely in North Carolina, to uncover fundamental biologic insights about why cancer occurs and to think about entirely new ways to diagnose and treat cancer that could benefit the entire world if successful,” Gopal said.

Graduation did not sever his ties to Carolina, Gopal said.

“I feel completely humbled by how important my UNC institutional family has been,” he said, “providing an unconditionally supportive tether, which has given me confidence to wander all around the world doing random things.”

Watch a replay of the ceremony on For closed captioning of the video, please visit the Winter Commencement web page.

Story by Susan Hudson and photos by Jon Gardiner, University Communications
Published Dec. 17, 2017