2004 Investiture Address by Dr. Rita R. Colwell
Distinguished Professor, University of Maryland College Park and Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health
Chairman, Canon US Life Sciences, Inc.
June 12, 2004
"How You Change the World"
Provost Barry Scherr, Dean Duncan, Associate Dean Lotko, Trustees Foley, Jeton, and Evans, distinguished faculty, staff, family, and friends, and especially members of the Dartmouth College Thayer School of Engineering Class of 2004; what a great honor to be here on this special occasion, the Thayer School Investiture at this very special institution – special because of the uniqueness of Dartmouth's engineering programs ... and because of my personal connections with Dartmouth – an honorary degree in 2003 and a daughter associated with Dartmouth's Medical School and Hitchcock as a pediatric clinician. Dartmouth is truly "family" for me.
But, let me first extend my congratulations to the graduates and their families. This is a proud moment in all of your lives.
I will make one commitment, this will not be the longest graduation speech ever given. That was a six-hour commencement address given in the 19th Century at Harvard; the first half was in Latin, the final three hours in Greek. Then, the graduates were given a test. In contrast, I will abide by the best advice for speakers – be sincere, be brief, and be seated.
In many ways, this is a significant time of reflection for me, just as for you. A little over 40 years ago, I arrived at Georgetown University, a university much like Dartmouth, as a young Assistant Professor to join the faculty of a newly established graduate program in Biology. Construction of the Science Building had just been completed and I note that the MacLean Engineering Sciences Center is under construction here at Dartmouth. The Department of Biology, when I started my career, had a new chairman – a young Princeton graduate recruited from Cornell University, Dr. George B. Chapman. He, with an engineer colleague, had just succeeded in slicing a bacterium into very thin sections so that its inner cell, including the fibrils of DNA, could be visualized by the electron microscope. That was a major breakthrough in those years. (Dr. Chapman, now 79 years old, continues to teach and to receive perfect ratings from his students). It was an exciting time – new faculty and staff, a brand new building, shiny new equipment, and a fledgling program in the biological sciences. The country was in an exuberant mood, with a dashing, vibrant young President, John F. Kennedy.
The students, both undergraduate and the newly recruited graduate students, like you, were bright, energetic and hardworking. In many ways, it was a euphoric time in the life of our country and certainly for me, beginning my career in science.
Just imagine, in those days, Georgetown students, and I bet at Dartmouth, too, were required to wear jackets and ties to class – the rules did not mention socks ... so the rebellious did not wear socks ... how the times have changed. Professors are grateful today if students wear clothes!
But, the calm and, yes, the complacency was shattered ... by an assassin's bullet in November 1963. Those of us in Washington will always remember where we were standing and what we were doing at the moment we heard the tragic news. We gathered to share the sorrow and pain. We watched silently, standing along Pennsylvania Avenue, as the horse-drawn hearse that bore our fallen leader passed by.
Soon after, an eloquent speech was given by Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial. And he, too, fell victim to an assassin's bullet. The riots that followed Martin Luther King's death were quelled by National Guardsmen who were encamped right on the Georgetown University Campus. When I looked out of the windows of my office in the Science Building, I could see soldiers, armored vehicles, and machine guns, on the quadrangle of the campus.
Vietnam unrest also left its mark. Students marched in Washington, led protests on campuses, and lobbied Congress to end the war.
Dartmouth College has long had a special place in history. And you, as students, have spent your years being educated in the finest Dartmouth tradition.
But, you, too, have found your lives bracketed by tragedy. 9/11 and the war in Iraq. And during the years spent at Dartmouth, you have been educated to be leaders ... challenged to "think out of the box." Whatever your views on the Iraqi war, don't make the mistakes that were made in Vietnam, where we condemned the warriors, as well as the war. This war may prove to be a tragic mistake, as Vietnam did. But, we should honor those brave young men and women – most from working-class families – who are serving their country in uniform.
You are young people ready to encounter choices and make decisions, which remind me of another commencement speaker, Woody Allen, who offered sage counsel to another graduating class like you, but at an earlier time ... and I quote,
"More than any time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly."
Actually, your choices are much better. In our science, engineering, and technology powered world of ever-increasing complexity, there is a growing need for your knowledge and very special know-how steeped in interdisciplinary education and social conscience, so very important, as we try to understand each other, in order to live in harmony, and build a sustainable future.
I challenge you to "Change the World." I know that sounds like a lofty and unrealistically ambitious goal. Likely few of us would think of announcing such power or prescience. But we all have our passion. Some of us want to write novels, some want to heal others, some want to train horses, and some of us want to uncover new knowledge, win a Nobel Prize. And you are equipped so very much better than most. Your education has included the arts, the social sciences, and engineering. I urge you, however, to not forget service to others in your personal lives. Find time to tutor an underprivileged child, take meals on wheels to an infirm elderly citizen, transport people with disabilities, or play ball or watch a movie with an at-risk teenager. These are experiences that enrich your soul and build your character too. And I urge you: always be compassionate, be tolerant. Tolerance and compassion have been synonymous with America. We must not let that change.
Our passions are uniquely ours, because we bring our own vision, our own values, and our own versatility to them. Our passions are what start us on quests to change the world.
We live in a time of change ... New scientific theories, new forms of music and literature, new technologies, cures for disease, new psychologies, and new visions come from those who dare to take risks and challenge conventional wisdom. Each of you has a unique contribution to make.
It was the distinguished educator and writer John Gardner who said,
"Democracy is measured not by its leaders doing extraordinary things, but by its citizens doing ordinary things extraordinarily well."
Over the last two centuries, America has been the nation that has most fundamentally shaped the world, primarily by citizens doing ordinary things with passion, commitment, and ingenuity.
Most importantly, America has been shaped by its scientists, engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs. They have ingrained in our culture the importance of asking questions, finding answers, and challenging the status quo.
Just one example is the revolution in information technologies. It is a force that has transformed societies. It began in America and has reached across the globe and has helped sow seeds of democracy in many nations.
Today, the vast accumulated knowledge of science and engineering has created a momentum of discovery. It is unparalleled in human history. And, it is fundamental research, basic research that has laid the foundation of America's leadership in the world. Our choices are almost unlimited, which makes our responsibility far greater. As individuals and as a nation, we must decide what we value and how to achieve it.
That transforming force of science and engineering has brought miraculous change with things that seem ordinary to all of us.
Let me share one story. In my career, I have had the privilege and satisfaction to help understand just where in the environment the bacterium causing the infectious disease, cholera, makes its home. Hundreds of thousands of people in the developing world suffer the disease every year and thousands die. I have studied the bacterium, Vibrio cholerae, for more than 20 years.
I'll just share a few highlights. My research has taken me to Bangladesh, and it has brought me into collaboration with countless other scientists and clinicians who fight this disease.
During the years of research carried out in my laboratory, we posed scientific questions and performed experiments that defied the conventional wisdom of the time. Many scoffed at our ideas and continued to pursue the old paradigms. That only spurred us on with greater commitment to the hypotheses we so fervently believed in.
Eventually we were able to prove that cholera is a bacterium that occurs naturally in rivers, estuaries, and coastal waters, even in the United States. And, the bacterium has a dormant stage that fooled researchers. It literally hides between epidemics.
We found that the cholera bacterium is associated with plankton in virtually all rivers and streams. But purifying water is an elusive goal. In poverty-stricken countries like Bangladesh, boiling water to obtain safe drinking water is not an option. There simply isn't enough firewood to burn.
A less expensive option is filtering out the plankton to reduce, and possibly prevent the disease. We found that finely woven sari cloth was an excellent and affordable filter.
The sari is the native dress for women in Bangladesh. A team of researchers is now teaching women in remote villages how to filter their water using several folds of the cloth. We were able to reduce incidence of the disease by nearly 50%.
Our work is but a small step toward reducing the number of people who die each year from cholera. We were ordinary people committed to our passion and able to make a difference. There are few things more gratifying in life than helping others help themselves.
There is still much work to be done. The toll that infectious diseases inflict on the world is enormous. Worldwide, over 17 million people die from malaria, hepatitis, cholera, AIDS, and other scourges each year.
There is an African proverb that says, "the lack of knowledge is darker than night." There is still a lot of darkness remaining in the world. There are still many things to change for the better. And, simple solutions can be powerful. You will not want for challenges.
This brings me to my conclusion. Living in a society rooted in science and engineering brings many benefits. The value of fundamental scientific and engineering research to our lives is enormous, and it also brings important responsibilities. It is not just up to us scientists and engineers to decide how we apply the new discoveries from science and technology. We must engage all of society in that discussion.
And, it is no longer enough for scientists and engineers to generate the new knowledge. We, as scientists and engineers, must be active in the support of, and debate about, the use of that knowledge. Science and engineering are strong and valuable forces for finding solutions to problems and for changing the world in positive ways. But, the task for all of us is to understand the issues that science and engineering raise and to be informed partners with the public in the debate about how knowledge is used.
Your engineering degree carries with it the superb reputation this institution has earned since Sylvanus Thayer appointed Robert Fletcher as the School's first professor of engineering upon the founding of the school in 1867 – 137 years ago. This investiture and commencement is just the beginning of your life-long journey in learning and in changing the world to become an ever better, more peaceful place.
And, in that journey, be curious, be compassionate, and be committed. You will not lack for challenges, for excitement, or for gratification, and I know that you will change the world.
Congratulations and great good luck.