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The Bees

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

University of Rochester’s 157th Commencement Ceremony
River Campus Eastman Quadrangle
Rochester, New York

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Thank you, President Seligman.

Good morning graduates, faculty, honored guests, family, and friends.

I am delighted to share this day with you, and I am deeply honored to accept an honorary degree from the University of Rochester.

I address you, today, not only as a guest, but, also, as an upstate New York neighbor. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is in Troy, New York, some 200 miles east of here, on I-90. As neighbors, we marvel at the same glorious foliage each autumn, and, then, hunker down for cold and snowy upstate New York winters!

Both universities began in the 19th century, within 26 years of one another. Today, more than a century and a half later, both share focus and achievement in many overlapping areas, and in impact on the upstate New York region, the nation, and the world.

Futures by definition are uncertain.

You are commencing to a future when great societal shifts are playing out in the national theater and upon a global stage. Ours is a flattening world — interlinked and interconnected. This mounting interdependence means that contemporary opportunities — markets, trade, industry, research, information flow, partnerships — have no borders. But, a flattening world, also, means that contemporary threats — terrorism, energy shortages, climate change, disease — have no borders, either.

Let me tell you a story — a story I think you will appreciate because of your mascot, the yellow jackets.

There is rising concern about vanishing colonies of bees. Last year, beekeepers in the United States, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Switzerland, and Poland reported dramatic losses of honeybees, which suddenly vanished from their hives. More than a quarter of the 2.4 million honeybee colonies in the United States have been lost, with reported losses at 30 percent to 90 percent of stock since last November. The phenomenon is called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and so far, no cause has been identified.

In the past, scientists examined bee bodies — found around hives — to discover reasons for disease — mites, pathogens, herbicides, etc. But in Colony Collapse Disorder, no bodies are found — the bees, apparently, simply abandon their hives, and vanish, possibly unable to find their way back home, to die alone in the surrounding area. 

The economic implications, alone, of this phenomenon are vast. Bees pollinate $15 billion dollars-worth of fruits, vegetables, and nuts, and contribute to about a third of our diet — and to animal feed, like clover.   

Speculation as to what is at fault runs the gamut: Has the bee immune system been compromised, allowing infection by a host of pathogens? Is it a virus? A pesticide? There is indication that the stress of moving increases bee susceptibility to Colony Collapse Disorder. Increasingly, thousands of colonies are trucked to almond fields to pollinate the growing almond industry — could this be at fault? Is it monoculture — planting vast areas of genetically similar crops? Is it an unanticipated consequence of genetically modified food production? Is it climate change? Or some combination of factors? I will say that speculation that radiation from cell phones is the cause has been dismissed.

The genome of the honeybee is yielding some clues. Comparing it to that of the fruit fly and the mosquito, researchers have found that bees cannot make an enzyme which other insects use to help eliminate toxins from the body — which could leave the bees at risk of poisoning. But, this does not provide an answer — or a resolution.

Whatever cause ultimately is found, this single phenomenon illustrates the interlinked complexities of this new century. Something — perhaps microscopic — is causing millions of bees to vanish, which, in turn affects agriculture, and what we eat for dinner, which, in turn, could impact our national economy, other nations and the global economy.

This reminds us of the metaphor of chaos theory — that the flutter of a butterfly's wings may alter the initial conditions of a chain of events which, ultimately, causes a tornado half a world away. This describes not only chaos theory, but interconnectedness.

Diagnosing the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, and treating it, will require scientific research, of course. But, public policy might weigh in — to address the impact on agriculture, on labor, and on food production and availability. It may even take on international trade and diplomatic or ethical dimensions. 

As such, the situation, also offers new opportunity — for geographic tracking across national boundaries, for collaborative research, for the development of treatment modalities.          

New York Times foreign affairs columnist, Tom Friedman — who spoke yesterday at our Rensselaer commencement — brilliantly describes global interconnectedness and interlinkage in his book, The World Is Flat. He aptly calls this phenomenon “Globalization 3.0,” in which the exponential growth of the Internet, computer networks, and e-mail empowers individuals in every corner of the globe. The entrepreneur working alone, on a laptop on the kitchen table may wield as much influence as a corporation.

Consider the award of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize to Jody Williams. She used e-mail to bring individuals and organizations together, around the world, to pressure governments to adopt an international accord against landmines.

What does this mean for you? First, it means that every discipline has a role to play in finding solutions to global problems, and in creating opportunity. This requires not only strength in disciplines, but multicultural sophistication, intellectual agility, and a global view.

Which means   

  • that you are able to embrace diverse cultures, with associated differences in thought, perspective, lifestyle, and practice;
  • that you can work across multiple disciplines and sectors to tackle big problems; 
  • that you recognize that all individuals, of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, should be valued for their contributions and be able to compete on a level playing field — in a flattening world.

 I assume that you know and appreciate all of these things. But, you also must be leaders — with vision, courage and integrity — leaders who can engage all constituencies, profit from their insights, and harness their creative energies.

When the human spirit meets challenge — empowered by education, reinforced by courageous, inclusive, and principled leadership — creative, innovative solutions begin to emerge. And, out of this strengthened coalescence, comes unexpected — and often exhilarating — opportunity.

I am an optimist. And, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman likes to say, I am short, and short people can only see the glass as half full. So optimize who you are and what you are. Optimize your experiences and what you have learned. Optimize others. Optimize your opportunities. Seize them and do meaningful things.

Count your blessings — and, then, count them, again — and use them, wisely.

Congratulations and Godspeed. 

Thank you.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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