2014 Commencement Address

Carolyn R. Bertozzi
Professor of Chemistry, UC Berkeley

May 17, 2014

Congratulations parents, family and friends and especially the class of 2014.

Last week I was at another graduation thinking how hard it must be to give a decent commencement speech. Thankfully, I thought, I am not a public figure and will therefore never be asked.

So you can imagine my surprise when Dean Clark asked me yesterday to fill in for Marye Anne Fox. My first reaction was that I could never fill such enormous shoes. Then one of my students opined that I do, however, have a knack for longwinded pompous lectures filled with self-importance and useless advice. It didn’t seem so farfetched after all.

Chancellor Fox is a legend, as a chemist, academic leader, and pioneering woman in science. She dedicated her career to the mission of public higher education.  

Marye Anne didn’t leave me hanging – she sent some comments for me to share with you. For example, she is very concerned with the rising costs of education and how to ensure broad access for the students of tomorrow. She is also intent on increasing the participation of women and URM students in science and engineering. Marye Anne is well aware of the Obama administrations prediction that 85% of new jobs in the next decade will require STEM education. Against the backdrop of an economy that is still burdened with unemployment rates hovering around 10% after 6 years, this is good news for you.

So you chose your majors wisely. If Marye Anne were here, she would laud the opportunities for you to change the world, enumerate the many challenges that lie ahead, in medicine, energy, sustainability, and big data. She would do so with soaring and inspirational rhetoric and you would leave here energized, ready to take on the world.

But instead, this evening, you have me.

I have been here with you, even taught some of you, for the last 4-years. I am closer to home.

Now that you've got your diploma and your parents wrote that last check, I feel we can finally be honest with you. So let’s do some mythbusting.

Myth #1. Everything we taught you is true.

During your years in the college of chemistry, you read textbooks, learned formulas, algorithms, reactions and processes. Good for you. Some of what we taught you is true. Some not so much. Some of it was true at the time, but not any more.

Here is the reality: Some of our fallacies were lies of omission, meant to simplify concepts so you could digest them slowly and in an orderly manner. First we told you that electrons were dots and lines, moving via curved arrows from here to there. Then came Quantum Mechanics! You had to rewrite your understanding of electrons and nuclei in terms of wave functions and probabilities. Why did we do this to you? To spare your brain from explosion.

But some of what we taught you was true at the time, but no longer. It was a snapshot of a moment in time, along a continuum of knowledge that perpetually expands. Our understanding of chemistry, the world we live in, other worlds yet to be discovered, is very incomplete. The book is still being written and what you learn at any point in time is just a preliminary draft. Discoveries now come at such a rapid pace that what we taught as fact 5 years ago may already have been debunked and revised.

Examples:

The chemical technologies underlying genome sequencing have advanced so rapidly, blowing away Moore’s law, that we can now sequence an entire human genome in a day and at the cost of around $1000.

The avalanche of data from genome sequencing efforts has changed our perception of human biology. We used to teach that Neanderthals and our human predecessors lived independently, that we beat them out in an epic evolutionary battle.

But the sequence of the Neanderthal genome indicates that they and our interbred. Indeed, I paid $99 for my genomic dataset and I can now proudly say that I am 2.6 % Neanderthal.

We used to teach that DNA is converted to RNA which is then converted proteins. DNA was the hard disk, RNA the memory stick, and proteins were the printed document. But we now know that almost our whole genome gets transcribed to RNA and only a small amount of that RNA gets converted to proteins. RNAs are the predominant biomolecules of the cell! How these molecules steer biological processes is one of the great mysteries of your generation, and your solution will surely be rooted in chemistry.

We used to teach that HIV was an automatic death sentence. Chemists have made it a chronically manageable condition and may eventually offer a cure.

We used to teach that industrial catalysts must be made of toxic metals. Now we know they can be made from molecules as benign as dietary amino acids.

We taught you in organic chemistry that C-H bonds are not functional groups. Technologies developed here at Berkeley have enabled the conversion of C–H bonds to amines and alcohols under very selective and under mild conditions.

In short, what you learned from us as rules and facts are more accurately thought of as best guesses based on current knowledge. Every rule may eventually be struck down. So if knowledge and facts are fluid and impermanent, what are you really taking away from your education at UC Berkeley?  

The tools to undermine current dogma with your own BIG IDEAS! The ability to think critically, with an open mind, to solve problems. If someone tells you this is how it is, wonder why?

This way of thinking was a hallmark of Marye Anne Fox’s career. She challenged accepted rules of chemical mechanism, especially chemistry initiated by light.  She also challenged prevailing assumptions about womens' abilities to do science and lead institutions.

What knowledge will you discover, what technology will you invent, what will you add to the textbooks that we can teach your successors here at Berkeley?

Myth #2. What you learned at Berkeley, we faculty taught you.

Not true. You learned far more from each other, and even taught us a thing or two. Your parents are thinking that perhaps the money flowed in the wrong direction!

Students come into our lives with fresh perspectives, experiences relevant to the moment, open minds and open hearts. We serve you best when we create an environment that encourages brainstorming, interaction, problem solving and teamwork. Best to stay out of the way.

Mary Anne Fox once told me that as she walked through the UCSD campus, many students and faculty didn't recognize who she was and some were even fuzzy on their chancellors' name. This is not a bad thing.  Academic leadership is about creating an environment where students and faculty learn together unfettered by the pressures of the “real world.” Successful administrators operate behind the scenes making everything run smoothly without their colleagues even noticing.

You were always your own best resources. Stay in touch. Collaborate for a lifetime.

Myth #3. You know everything there is to know about your parents.

Not even close. Not because they are harboring big secrets, or anything, but because until now your relationship with them has been filtered through the cloth of their parental obligations.

Now that you have gone through this rite of passage, get to know them apart from their obligations to you.  What is their story?  This insight may help you find your way in the world.

Here is my story. (Bertozzi tells her dad's immigrant story, her mom's late stage collegiate pursuits.) Both had a sense of humor – Dad told me not to worry about lab finances, Mom wanted to bail on my own graduation ceremony to buy sneakers.

This is a good note on which I should wrap up.

Bottom line:
Share in your parents lives
Don't cling too tightly to old facts
Continue learning from each other

We are proud to have you forever in our family!

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