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Investiture Address: Dean Laura Ray

June 8, 2019

Over this past year I’ve thought a great deal about nature and nurture — partly because of my desire to support an environment at Thayer that allows our incredibly talented students and faculty to thrive, and partly because of some things I learned about my family this past year. Let me explain…

As part of Thayer’s winter board meeting, the board visited the sprawling biotechnology complex in South San Francisco — the birthplace and hub of the biotech industry. Little did I know then the role of biotechnology in making 2019 an extraordinary year for me; you see, within this sprawling complex our host pointed out the home of a growing company that sells DNA test kits.  

My daughter had asked for one of these kits for Christmas. Somewhere in Rhode Island another young woman had also purchased a kit. A few weeks later, I received an email: “My daughter and your daughter matched as first cousins on 23-and-me.” I replied that I was not surprised because I was adopted at birth — although I really was stunned at the news. In a few email exchanges over a period of under two hours, I learned that these two young women were indeed first cousins and that I had a full biological sister, two brothers, uncles, cousins, nieces, and a nephew that I never knew about before this. 

I learned that my biological father was a professor of engineering physics and systems for 50 years and that my biological mother was a longtime educator, both before passing away last year.  

My father used his talents in service to both the local and the international communities by developing and fielding technologies to improve health and sanitation, helping to found an organization for STEM education in urban Providence Rhode Island, and leading dozens of students on community-based service internships in Ghana. Over her 36 years as a teacher, my mother instilled a love for reading in hundreds of children.

I guess there is truth to the “nature” part of the nature vs. nurture debate.  

Still, there is also much truth to the nurture side, and I can say with confidence, that your Thayer School education has nurtured a passion for actively engaging your engineering gifts to improve the human condition. 

Through classroom interactions with faculty and peers, through countless collaborative projects with your classmates, and through many hours spent slogging through problem sets in the Great Hall, engaged in brainstorming at the white boards in the Couch Project room, working intently at the mills and lathes in the machine shop, assembling and debugging projects in the Fahey project lab, puzzling over a circuit in the digital lab, and proudly displaying your work for the community in the Glycofi Atrium, I’ve observed you engage with the nurturing environment at Thayer School — an environment that has allowed you to try and sometimes to fail and try again, making success all the more exhilarating. 

We have seen the many prototypes that you have made in the Thayer School workshops. And we have watched with delight, as you have competed for and won the grand prize at the annual Dartmouth Entrepreneurs Forum for your work to develop and commercialize an asthma monitor. We shared your joy as you took top honors for your design of a Mars greenhouse in the NASA Big Idea Challenge.

We have especially enjoyed following your capstone design projects from a seed idea to an innovative prototype. You have developed technology to keep the streets of San Francisco clean of human waste. You have advanced the technology of those who came before you by modifying a football tackling robot into a responsive training target for first responders. You have invented devices to combat medical conditions such as incontinence and to improve disease treatment, including tuberculosis, upper airway surgery, and epidural access. You have developed a rail trail to improve community access to recreation, and assessed energy conservation measures in a building owned by a non-profit. You have developed a machine to more safely detect unexploded ordinance left behind in nations that have suffered through years of war.

In Thayer’s research labs, you have advanced the next generation design of quantum image sensors and developed materials to make electronics within our cell phones and computers more efficient. You have engineered thermophilic bacteria to improve the efficiency of turning corn fiber to biofuel. You have developed new, miniature medical imaging devices to better diagnose prostate cancer and you have made advances in technologies to interpret radar images of ice sheets. And your research on corrosion of orthopedic implant alloys will someday lead to longer lasting implants.

We, the faculty and staff at Thayer, take pride in the many ways you have put your liberal arts and Thayer education to work, understanding your engineering research and projects in the context of human need.

Parents and grandparents, thank you for passing on the engineering gene to your children, nurturing them to young adulthood, and lending them to us for these past few years.  

And thank you graduates for your hard work and dedication to learning and service. You are all truly part of the Thayer School family and will remain so throughout your lives. We look forward to hearing about all that you accomplish in the years ahead, visiting with you when our paths cross, and greeting you on your many return visits to campus.

Congratulations to the Class of 2019.

Thank you.