High Hopes and Expectations About Tomorrow’s Science and Technology Challenge
(A commencement address to graduates of Eberly College of Science, Penn State University, delivered on May 17, 2008)
It is an honor to be asked to address you on this wonderful day of promise for an exciting future. As a Professor for the past 35 years, I understand the important achievement this day represents for this graduating class of Eberly College of Science. Led by a dedicated faculty, you have worked hard for four years and now are leaving this nurturing place for new challenges. This is fortunate, as the country intensely needs new graduates in science and mathematics. We are faced with major challenges about energy and the environment, continued advances in healthcare and its availability, and the increasing international interdependence of the world’s economies and wellbeing that only young people with your talents and training can surmount.
I do not want to give you the impression that you are through learning. You have just attained the tools to begin to learn. Almost all of the knowledge you use throughout your life, you will learn on your own in the future. Whether this occurs in graduate or professional schools or out in the marketplace, you will have to continue to acquire new knowledge and skills. Finding environments that provide opportunities and people who stimulate these learning processes is a major part of decision-making in your immediate future.
Over 40 years ago, I stood in a similar position as you are standing today. I had just obtained my PhD degree in theoretical chemistry from the University of Illinois and was faced with a career decision. I decided, after reading many journals and textbooks, that I wanted to become a scientist studying the then-new field of molecular biology. I had essentially no training in biology, but I did find a mentor at Caltech, Professor Norman Davidson, who was also making the transition from chemistry to molecular biology—and in that environment, I was able to rapidly learn the essentials. Since then, I have done research in cancer biology, virology, cell biology, immunology, and RNA chemistry, not to mention interactions with biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. In each of these cases, I had to again become a student, learning the essentials of the new field. There is nothing I enjoy more than learning something new and sharing this new knowledge with colleagues. When people ask me about the secret to my success, I answer that it is my curiosity that drives me to learn something new and use this knowledge to create something useful.
You are at a transition where decisions that influence the course of your career are about to be made. I have been advising students at MIT for many years, and each coming year seniors wander into my office seeking advice about possible career paths. We talk about possibilities. but I make it a rule not to ever strongly influence their decision on career choices. This decision has to be their own. I believe young students have a more valid vision of the future than I do. This philosophy, from the perspective of the student, is similar to a popular reframe during the 1960s: “never trust anyone over thirty with important decisions about your life.”
However, there is one aspect about the future that I do emphasize. Most people, particularly young people, underestimate the rate of change of society and science that will occur over the course of their career. Thus, in face of this uncertainty, how can one try to make wise decisions? The answer is that though the rate of change may be difficult to judge, you probably can see the major forces that will drive change globally over the next decades. These include the challenges mentioned above—increasing cost of energy, climate change, increasing demands for medical care—but I would add to these the rapid advances in technology and science, and particularly life sciences. These forces are important to recognize since they indicate where change will occur, and wherever there is “change” there is the opportunity to become the leader of this change.
As a means of illustrating the rate of change in science and technology, it is interesting to remember that a little over 50 years ago, Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, thus founding the field of molecular biology. Thirty years ago, we discovered how to synthesize new genes and use recombinant DNA to engineer organisms that could produce human insulin and other pharmaceuticals. A great alumnus of Penn State, and a personal friend, Professor Paul Berg of Stanford University, largely led this advancement in science. I had the pleasure a few years ago to present the inaugural lecture in the Berg Auditorium on your campus. Paul was present that day, making it special.
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