Investiture Address: Joe Palca

Science Correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR)

June 9, 2018

First, I'd like to thank Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering for inviting me to speak today. I confess I was surprised to get the invitation. It seemed like an honor more appropriate to a distinguished engineer…and that assessment seemed justified when I checked to see who else had been invited to give this speech.

The three previous speakers included the former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a winner of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, and some guy who won the Nobel Prize. Now me? Seriously??

Well, you're stuck with me now, at least for the next nine and half minutes…

I am going to give me speech in two parts.

First, I will give the first part.

Here goes.

Now that you have graduated, I urge you to take on the responsibility of helping others.

You must always try to do the right thing.

Try new experiences. Expand your horizons.

Be true to yourself. Don't give up your dreams.

Don’t be discouraged by setbacks.

Appreciate diversity.

Cherish and respect the people who mean the most to you.

Seek balance in your life…take time to smell the roses.

That concludes the first portion of my speech…I have just packed into 25 seconds all of the most common pieces of advice for new graduates … a list I got from an article entitled Values and Messages Conveyed in College Commencement Speeches in Current Psychology by Jenifer Partch and Richard Kinnier.

Lots of memorably good advice.

Not really, but that’s the problem with these graduation speeches…they’ve all be given…and for the most part they’re all forgotten.

Now that we’re done with that…I’ll move on the  second part of my speech, to which I will refer as part two. A few anecdotes. Anecdotes are always fun, right?

A few years ago, I was at a conference in Maine called PopTech…heartily recommend PopTech…in fact one of my predecessors on this stage Bob Metcalf was one of the founders of PopTech…all about technology and social change…

Anyway, at this conference there was a woman who posed a question to the audience. She said, what does it feel like to be wrong…

And so I'll pose that question to you…what does it feel like to be wrong?

She waited a few seconds, and said something like, Now most people answer that question by saying something like it feels uncomfortable…it feels embarrassing…it feels mortifying…but she said all those responses are completely wrong….

She said when you're wrong, it feels EXACTLY the same as when you are right…it's only when you REALIZE that you're wrong that you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed or mortified.

So what are we to learn from this?

First, I hope you all feel some degree of discomfort when you learn you're wrong about something…I know that doesn't seem to be the case for certain politicians…but I hope that we live in a world where ultimately truth is an important concept…

But it does mean when you feel certain you're right about something…there should be a little nagging voice in your head saying "are you sure."

I can safely ignore that voice, because I’ve never been wrong about anything, but you're not me…so pay attention to it.

The next thought… is a riff on a slogan Nancy Reagan made popular as part of the war on drugs… the slogan was “Just Say No.”

Well, my slogan is “Just Say Yes.”

No, I’m not suggesting you say yes to drugs…

My slogan refers to saying yes to opportunities that may not seem to have any immediate payback…

Some of the best things that ever happened to me happened because I decided to say yes when people asked me to do things.

Here are two examples…

I have to give you a little background first.

While I was in grad school doing sleep research at the University of California Santa Cruz I saw an ad in Science magazine for the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program. Takes grad students and puts them in real newsrooms for 10 weeks during the summer…helps news organizations learn about science—although most of them aren’t terribly interested in learning about science…and helps proto scientists learn about journalism.

I spent the summer at WDVM as it was then known, the CBS affiliate in Washington, DC. I worked with a great science reporter named Steve Gendel. We did all kinds of stories including a series on Artificial Intelligence! This was 1981. Talk about being ahead of the curve.

Anyway, at the end of the summer I was hooked on journalism. I went back to Santa Cruz where I finished my dissertation, and left the lab never to return.

Eventually, I wound up in Washington…WDVM hired me back to work as a science producer.

While I was in Washington, I used to get calls from the AAAS Mass Media program…they'd ask me to come to speak to new fellows, or speak at staff retreats, or speak at dinners with potential donors…I was a poster child for how the program could change someone's career path.

I was grateful. So I always said yes whenever they asked me.

The payback came in 1985. The editor of Nature, a bloke named John Maddox, came to Washington looking to hire someone to work in the magazine's bureau in Washington… someone who'd write about science policy in the US.

John lived in London, and he didn't know any science journalists in Washington, so he called his friend Victor McElheny at the science writing program at MIT. Victor was in Boston, and he didn't know anyone looking for work in Washington, so he called his friend Susan Sauer—now Susan Sauer Sloan—at the AAAS Maas Media Program office….and Susan told Victor, 'well Joe Palca is here…he might be interested.' So Victor called John and John called me and the next thing I know I'm making the ridiculously odd move from local TV news to one of the most prestigious science journals in the world.

Just Say Yes.

The other example happened fairly recently. I was invited to visit an NPR member station in Waco, Texas…Now for me, Waco doesn't hold the same attraction as say a member station in Aspen, or Honolulu or even Indianapolis…but they asked, so I said yes.

And then the station manager told me that Baylor University flak want to talk to me. Baylor holds the license for the Waco station.

Flak is a term reporters tend to use for public information officers or press officers. It's not the world’s nicest term. It reflects the fact that press officers sometimes have to sell stories that reporters would never be interested in...but university brass think for some reason are important.

"President's office gets new carpet."

“Capital Campaign Allows College to buy New Boiler for Administration Building."

"Faculty Member Becomes Treasurer of the National Association of Social Workers."

So I wasn't crazy eager to meet with this flak…but I said yes.

She told me a story that was just astonishing. It seems a recently arrived Baylor faculty member had a son who lost an eye to retinoblastoma when he was an infant… It turns out that one of the ways you diagnose retinoblastoma is by shining a light in the eye, and looking at the reflection. In a normal healthy eye you'll get a red reflections…because the light will bounce off the blood vessels at the back of the eyeball. But if you're developing a tumor in that part of the eye, called the retinal you'll get a white reflection…because the tumor has a milky appearance.

You've probably all seen that red reflections…it's the red eye that you get when you take a flash picture of someone with a digital camera. Well, this scientist realized that his wife had taken a zillion pictures of their son from the day he was born…many of them flash pictures. So he digitized all the pictures…and looked for the first example of this white reflection. He found it when Noah was 12 days old…Noah wasn't diagnosed by a doctor until he was 4 months old.

Now Noah's dad Bryan was a chemist, but he figured maybe Noah wouldn’t have lost an eye to the cancer if he had been diagnosed earlier…

So he teamed up with some computer scientists, and they developed an iPhone app that can detect this white reflection in pictures….That way when new parents were snapping away they get a warning signal if there was a problem.

I did a story about Bryan for NPR…and that got a lot of people interested in the app…it's now undergoing clinical trials…Anecdotally, Bryan's got lots of letters from parents saying they were able to get their kids in for treatment early because of his app…and in some cases it has saved their lives.

I never would have heard about this story but for the flak at Baylor in Waco….and it's been one of the stories I'm proudest of.

Just says yes.

OK we’re getting close to the end.

You’ve all been trained as engineers…but some of you may feel the way I did when I was finishing my degree…that you’re really not sure a life in engineering is for you.

THAT’S OK…A degree in engineering has taught you how to solve problems, think critically, get things done. Believe me those are fungible skills.

That takes me to my penultimate point. We live in a world today with a lot of misinformation floating around. Loud voices holding forth on subjects they know little to nothing about.

People ask me how to combat that misinformation… and my answer is you all. As engineers, you know the difference between fact and fiction, you know what’s real and what’s made up. What you need to do is find ways to share your knowledge with the public. And you need to become effective communicators.

For some of you, this will come naturally, for others it will take some work. But by becoming confident communicators you will gain public trust. And people listen to people they trust, so you will be in a good position to push back the tide of nonsense that some are trying to pass off as fact.

Here's the final thought I'd like to share. When you’ve said all you have to say, stop talking.

Thank you.