2010 Commencement Address

JoAnne Stubbe
Alumna and Novartis Professor of Chemistry
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The “Changin” Road

Dean Mathies, Chairs Marletta and Reimer, Faculty, Graduating Students, Families, and Friends.  What a pleasure it is for me to have been asked to address the 2010 graduating class in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering!  Never in a million years would I have predicted that I would have been asked to give ANY commencement address, let alone one to the students from the departments of chemistry and chemical engineering at UC Berkeley, home of the best and brightest our country has to offer.  After much thought, I decided to start by presenting my brief history.  I hope it will let you see that if you are motivated and passionate about whatever your interest, you can be successful and you can make a difference.

I came to graduate school at Berkeley in chemistry in 1968, quite by accident.  I knew from my high school experience, having been inspired by a fantastic teacher, that I loved chemistry: the colors and the crystals, I hated the explosions!  As an undergraduate at the U of Penn (1964-1968), my enthusiasm for chemistry expanded and intensified, but my senior year, I had absolutely NO idea how to choose the most appropriate graduate school in chemistry given my interests and abilities.  Remember, ’68 was before the days of the internet.  Fortunately, my undergraduate research adviser at Penn, Ed Thornton, convinced me to apply to at least  “one good school,” Berkeley.  A diehard New Englander, I am not sure why I was brave enough to go so far from home.  In the Fall of ’68 when I arrived at the SF airport from Boston and boarded the helicopter to fly across the bay to Berkeley, my heart was in my mouth and I was petrified.  I was really not sure I had made the correct decision. I became even more apprehensive when I looked for a cab to take me to International House, my home for a semester, and found that the cabs were painted with orange/pink / yellow flowers and one taxi driver had his hair in a ponytail down to his derrière. WELCOME TO BERKELEY!  At any rate, ’68-’71 were tumultuous times at Cal with Peoples Park and the “confrontation” of 1969, protests against the Vietnam War and tear gas from helicopters over Strawberry Canyon, “Pigs” lined up with clubs raised to control the “radicals.”  I received quite an education at Berkeley, most of which was not scientific!  The decision to attend Berkeley, quite by accident, has made ALL the difference.  I guarantee that I would not now be a faculty member at MIT, if Berkeley had not been my starting point.  The piece of paper you will receive today DOES MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

Graduation from Cal left me with little self-confidence and no mentor.  I knew, however, I wanted to teach.  Teaching is in my genes.  It took me twelve years and three academic positions, first at Williams College, second at Yale U Medical School and third at U of Wisconsin-Madison, to move from the rank of assistant professor to the rank of associate professor with tenure.  I frankly never really thought much about the promotion process or its very long length in my case. I just considered myself to have been extremely lucky to have been given the privilege to educate bright undergraduate and graduate students, to carry out scientific experiments on exciting problems with state-of-the-art equipment, surrounded by very smart and dedicated colleagues.

The key to my success and yours will likely not be innate ability.  You are all very gifted intellectually.  The key to my/your “success” will be the problems you choose to work on and your motivation and passion in their pursuit. I am grateful to have been able to pursue my passion throughout my career, first and foremost by teaching very bright, inquisitive students such as yourselves and second by pursuing research to solve medically and environmentally important problems through basic science.  So wow, what an honor to address you all today!

After accepting the invitation to give this speech, I listened to five commencement addresses given at Berkeley and MIT over the past few years.  For me, the most memorable was that of Click and Clack, you know, the Car talk guys on NPR.  What came through in their address was their great sense of humor, their practical advice, and their ability to deliver this advice, succinctly and as a team.  Having been called (some might say, branded) a “scientist’s scientist” by the president of MIT, and not having the charisma of Click and Clack, I will compensate today by being brief.

So let me start by saying CONGRATULATIONS.  You have accomplished one milestone in your lives.  You have learned how to think, how to formulate hypotheses, and how to tackle difficult problems.  You have hopefully gained enough self-confidence to ask questions when you don’t understand, so that you can make the best possible decisions.  Let me repeat again, you are the best and the brightest and with your undergraduate and graduate education, you can tackle ANY problem.  Chemistry is central to everything.  You are only limited by your imagination for a career choice(s).  Look around you, the people you have met during your experience at Berkeley will be colleagues for life and will be invaluable in finding solutions to problems you encounter over your careers in ways that you never could imagine. 

Almost 40 years have passed since I attended graduate school at Berkeley.  During that time, transformative changes have occurred.  The human genome and over a thousand prokaryotic/eukaryotic genomes have been sequenced, revealing amazing secrets about evolution and providing a guide to personalized medicine in the future. The internet, the information highway, was born and is providing us with global connections and an overwhelming amount of unfiltered information, at amazing rates.  Barack Obama was elected President of the United States of America; I remember the marches on Selma, Alabama, the death of Martin Luther King.

The one transformative change that has been elusive in this period is that we still have NOT elected a woman President of the United States.  Sadly, I am not sure that this will happen in my lifetime.   However, who would have thought and how thrilling it is for me to see that we now have WOMEN faculty in chemistry departments and have WOMEN presidents of major Universities (MIT, Harvard, Penn, Princeton).  We also have a woman CEO of Dupont, a company that used to have as its slogan, “Better Living through Chemistry.”  In the words of my favorite poet Dylan — Bob Dylan — the world is rapidly “changing.”

You will be the major participants in determining the new directions and executing changes in the next 40 years: a heavy responsibility.  I do not have a crystal ball, but I hope your future will be filled with amazing positive changes, ones that most of us cannot anticipate.  I hope that you will help provide the creative, off-the-wall ideas, to solve the many difficult problems we face.

I will close with a few practical suggestions on how to be successful and define some future challenges as I see them:

  1. Many scientists lack effective people skills.  In this time of being continually “plugged in,” interaction with “real” people is good.  Take a course in management skills to find out how to maximize the productivity of your co-workers, no matter what the challenges you encounter.  Believe me, there will be many.
  2. The world, science, is “changin” very, very rapidly. You will find that you are continually retraining over the course of your career: exhilarating, but challenging.  You will need to put aside time and reserve energy to reeducate. Forty years ago there was no field of organometallic chemistry, no inorganic or organic “nanotechnology,” few protein structures, and no molecular biology. 
  3. There are not enough hours in the day to keep up with all the information. You will need to learn how to filter the good from the bad and develop methods to retrieve/catalogue the good and re-catalogue as your interests change.
  4. You will work elbow-to-elbow with people with all different kinds of expertise.  You will need to be able to talk across boundaries, ask questions no matter how silly, to be able to make informed decisions.  You will need to find collaborators that you trust and can talk to, no matter how difficult the language barrier.  In fact, the language barrier may literally be Chinese or Spanish.
  5. If you are good at whatever you do, continual demands will be made on you.  Despite the flattering nature of these demands, for example to give a commencement address at your alma mater, think carefully about your commitments.  You can too easily over-commit, at great loss of effectiveness.  You will need to learn to say NO.
  6. Finally, you and your siblings are in the “plugged-in” generation: ear plugs, cell phones, twitters, chirps.  Take time to become unplugged and smell, see, hear and experience the beauty around you.  Think about mother earth.

You are chemists and chemical engineers!  Chemistry is central to all science.  Your education provides you with unending possibilities for your life’s work or works.

  1. There are many problems facing the world. Basic science and discovery will need to be integrated with practical solutions:
  2. The environment.  How to sequester CO2, how to purify water and clean air—all require an understanding of chemistry. 
  3. Alternative energy.  Many approaches are essential: turn on your creative juices as we need to find alternatives — FAST.
  4. Personalized medicine. Dementia (Alzheimer’s disease) and aging in the populations—a  problem we will all encounter as we live longer.  However, as we cure the world of diseases: malaria, tuberculosis, polio, AIDS, etc.
  5. Food and agriculture will be a major problem — how will we feed the world? Chemistry will play an essential role in all of these challenges. 
  6. Finally, diversity issues (yes, we need to keep the diversity issue in administrators’ and colleagues’ faces).  This problem of course is not unique to the chemical sciences.
  7. A successful society depends on decisions involving technology advances.  WE must educate all of our people to be productive in the changing world, to understand the scientific method and to make informed decisions.  We MUST commit time to this endeavor. We NEED TO EDUCATE.

So, 40 years ago I never would have dreamed that I would be standing here and have been on such an amazing journey.  While all journeys have their ups and downs, I have been a lucky one, being paid to pursue my passion, giving back to society by the 100s of students I have taught over the years.  It is time for you and your generation to tackle the difficult problems the world now faces, and help find solutions.  Like a pledge to NPR, whether it is $10 or $100,000, we ALL can make contributions that make a difference.  I hope that you all will have as exhilarating an experience as I have had and am having.  Continue to learn, stay motivated and passionate. Who knows what awaits you in the next 40 years and in which directions your life will proceed?

In conclusion, I combine the thoughts of my two favorite poets, Dylan and Frost — the times they are rapidly “changing,” take the road less traveled by, the first one now will later be last, and it is YOUR time to make all the difference.


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