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Humility and Confidence

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

Hooding and Recognition Ceremony
Washington University in St. Louis
Graduate School of Arts & Sciences
University City, Missouri

Friday, May 20, 2011


Thank you, Dr. Smith.

Good morning.

I offer my warm greetings to the graduates, faculty, staff, honored guests, family, and friends.

Congratulations, graduates! Those of you receiving your masters’ and doctorates today have achieved much. You have taken on the challenge of doing advanced work at a leading research university with 22 Nobel Laureates to its credit. In the process, you have proven your intelligence, creativity, and — especially — persistence.

For those family and friends who may not know, attaining a graduate degree requires more than getting good grades. First, Ph.D. students must create a research question, and that question must be interesting and novel. Masters’ students must take on fundamental research or design a case study, as well. Second, the student must form an approach toward answering that question. Often, this is the most difficult part of the research process.

Third, the research itself must be performed to exacting standards. That work, which can be all-consuming and which usually stretches over years, often leads to disappointments. The most beautiful, elegant formulation imagined may not stand up to data found from experiments or found in the real world.

I will pause here as you consider the distress this might bring to a dedicated student. The lesson, which nearly all graduate students learn, is intellectual humility. A graduate program, especially at the doctoral level, forces one to recognize the limits of knowledge and imagination. It also encourages one to extend beyond imagined limits, and to discover more about the world and about oneself.

There is a step four: the student must write a dissertation that makes it clear that he or she has made an original contribution to knowledge. The writing must be both complete and persuasive. This brings up the fifth requirement, the oral defense.

Now, I already have mentioned the lesson of humility. However, paradoxically, the graduate candidate also must demonstrate confidence. I can assure you that high confidence in a thesis or dissertation often does not preclude stumbling, jitters, and dry mouths.

Nevertheless, confident they are-or they would not be standing here today. These graduates have successfully defended their original ideas in front of insistent, probing, and clever inquisitors. That requires a deep conviction that the research was done with integrity, and that the conclusions are justified.

Graduates, you know all this. Your humility and confidence, just as surely as your knowledge and skill, qualify you as sorely needed experts in our society.

Certainly, each of you can claim to have a depth of knowledge in your field. And, because of the rigor of the program here, you have the credentials to develop new ideas, to gain entry to teams of exploration and discovery, and to qualify for the careers and support that will allow you to pursue what you love and uncover the mysteries of humankind and of the universe.

What is more, your Master’s degree or Ph.D. is a passport to opportunities worldwide. Laboratories, government agencies, foundations, corporations, boardrooms, and, of course, the halls of academia, all recognize what you have accomplished and your right to participate as an expert in expressing opinions and providing advice that is based both on knowledge and discernment.

Naturally, gaining entrance is only the first step in your providing benefits to society. To make a difference, you will need to continue to work, often more intensely than you might imagine, and to use the skills you have developed, the frameworks you have learned for analysis and judgment, and the imagination you have come to trust.

As an example, I might point to the work of one of Rensselaer's professors, Dr. Robert Linhardt, a carbohydrate chemist of some renown. Because of the preparation he received as he worked to attain his doctorate, Dr. Linhardt was able to pursue basic research into complex carbohydrates. His expertise — years later — enabled him to do two important things. But, first, a bit of background.

More than 500 million doses of the anticoagulant heparin are prescribed each year. This compound thins the blood and slows clotting, protecting patients from strokes, and is used as an adjunct to heart treatments and kidney dialysis. It is a product that is purified from animal-derived sources. A few years ago, more than 80 people died when a contaminant entered the heparin supply chain. Dr. Linhardt, because of his depth of knowledge from his research, led one of the teams that uncovered the source and nature of the contaminant.

In addition, Dr. Linhardt and his research team bioengineered a first synthetic version of heparin to provide a safer drug for the needed therapies. This kind of synthesis is complex and difficult. So, the work continues on developing synthetic heparin in a form which imitates all the properties of the animal-derived form. But a critical first step has been made by Dr. Linhardt and his colleagues.

As I am sure you all know, whether you work in a scientific field or in one that is more geared toward the arts or social sciences, individual effort, enhanced by collaboration and effective teamwork, is an essential element toward achieving significant results.

Such teamwork usually is inter-generational, and Dr. Linhardt’s work is no exception. For the younger members of a research team, this often shapes the direction of a career. For the older members of the team, there are three distinct benefits. First, the sense that they are handing something on to the next generation. Second, the younger members of the team are often the ones who come up with ideas that challenge orthodoxy and refresh the enterprise. Third, the work itself, which often is dear to members of the team, may be an endeavor of decades and even lifetimes. When new generations participate in the research, they provide hope that the long journey toward a new understanding or a solution will be completed.

I remember the day I defended my Ph.D. thesis and the day I received my Ph.D. (from M.I.T.) — both occasions felt exhilarating, yet a bit anti-climactic at the same time, because of the length of my labor and the amount of work I had accomplished. I did feel proud and confident. I did not know exactly where my career would lead, but I knew I wanted to make a contribution: First, in basic research — research that I did at AT&T Bell Labs. I wanted to make a contribution in teaching the next generation — which I did at Rutgers University.

I also wanted to contribute to public policy, and I did that at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I continue to work in public policy today as a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Finally, I was determined to enable others - work that I have the privilege of doing as I lead Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the nation’s oldest technological university.

The challenges before us — before you — are myriad — many without borders — disease, poverty, natural disasters, climate change, energy security… The list goes on. Whether you work in basic or applied scientific research, in the liberal arts, in the social sciences, or the pure arts, what you will do matters very much to our culture, our society, and our world. You have been tested in a unique cauldron that has brought you through intense personal effort, challenge, and a diversity of ideas. All of this has made you excellent.

I congratulate you on that excellence. Go forth and do great things

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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