This year’s Rolf C. Syvertsen Fellow, Cynthia Hahn, is as effervescent as the legendary dean was gruff. Though their styles may be worlds apart, Hahn exemplifies the special qualities that characterized Syvertsen and that the award bearing his name recognizes: a love of medicine and science, a depth of human concern, academic excellence, and a devotion to community and mentoring others.
Earlier this year, Hahn and five of her classmates were chosen as the 2015-16 Syvertsen Scholars. Hahn later received the additional honor of being named the 2015-16 Syvertsen Fellow. These merit awards honor the memory of Dr. Rolf C. Syvertsen, a former professor of anatomy, long-time dean, and beloved mentor to Dartmouth medical students from 1923 to 1960. The fellow and scholars awards are funded by alumni, and the fellow is selected annually from among the scholars by the Syvertsen Memorial Alumni Committee.
Devotion to Science, Medicine, and Community
“All I wanted for my eighth birthday was a microscope,” says Hahn, who spent many hours in her father’s virology lab as a young child. “I was fascinated by seeing squamous cells scraped from the side of my cheek under the microscope and was entertained for hours making ‘potions’ on the lab bench with colorful reagents and an assortment of beakers.”
Child’s play evolved into a career path for Hahn. After earning her bachelor’s in chemistry at Amherst College, Hahn spent three years working in a cancer genetics lab studying new potential therapeutic targets for acute myeloid leukemia.
“I found that I was drawn to projects with direct relevance to human disease," she says. So Hahn decided to pursue a career as a physician-scientist, and in 2008, she began the MD-PhD program at Geisel. "Here at Dartmouth, I've been so fortunate to have excellent training in both science and medicine," she adds.
Hahn did her doctoral research in the lab of Geisel physician-researcher Christopher Lowrey, MD, a professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Geisel and a hematologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. Read more about Hahn’s research here, including an important discovery she made related to sickle cell disease.
"He was my ideal mentor. He was always there for support and guidance, but also fostered my confidence and independence as a scientist," says Hahn of Lowrey. Following his example, Hahn sought opportunities to mentor students interested in research through MD-PhD program initiatives, including Geisel Science Scholars and the Dartmouth MD-PhD Undergraduate Summer (MPUS) Fellowship Program.
Hahn plans to continue a dual-focused career in hematology and oncology, and hopes that she, too, will inspire young physicians and scientists—just as Dr. Rolf Syvertsen did for generations of medical students at Dartmouth.
Syvertsen cared deeply about the wellbeing of medical students, as does Hahn. During her time at Dartmouth, she has served her fellow students in many ways. She has held positions in student government, served on multiple medical education committees, and, from 2009 to 2013, she and Laura Ostapenko '13 conducted a study evaluating medical student wellness at Geisel. Their findings—that student burnout occurred quickly and then plateaued within the first 6 months of medical school —prompted the school to make several changes to improve student wellbeing and resiliency.
"Dartmouth is a very special community, and I care deeply about its future," says Hahn—just as Syvertsen did for so many years.