President Mathieson, graduating students, families, friends and honored guests
It is a great honour to accept this honorary degree and to celebrate the achievements of this year’s graduates here at the University of Hong Kong.
My own professional journey had its origins on the island of Hawaii, where I grew up in a small town, attended public schools and struggled to feel relevant in a world I imagined was passing me by. I loved math and science but this did not endear me to peers, who were less than complimentary of my geeky interests and passion for things like cryptograms, tiny sea urchins and hikes in the rainforest with my dad.
As I was reflecting on my journey to where I am today, three things stood out from my experiences.
The first is that mentors matter. I remember the time in college when I had done poorly on a chemistry exam after studying very hard for it, and I was discouraged. After having been so excited to study chemistry and apply that knowledge to biology, I found myself struggling to make the connection between balancing equations or calculating molarity and understanding the function of biological molecules. Meanwhile I was enjoying my French language and history classes, and I went to see my French teacher to ask about switching my major. “What’s your current major?” she asked. “Chemistry”, I replied. Without skipping a beat, she said “Oh, you should stick with Chemistry!” And she explained that although she loved teaching, she thought Chemistry offered many more career options. I credit her steady guidance, in part, for giving me the encouragement I needed to stay the course, continue through general chemistry and on to organic, analytical and eventually biochemistry classes that I found both challenging and fascinating.
When at last I stood on the stage receiving my diploma in biochemistry in 1985, the path ahead looked long and open, filled with opportunities but also risks. Could I really become a professional scientist? The question was both exhilarating and terrifying to me. I went off to graduate school not quite sure how I would fare, but nonetheless full of anticipation. Over the next few years I worked on my graduate degree in Boston and then took on a post-doctoral position in Boulder Colorado to gain additional research experience before deciding on a career path. Along the way my dad was an unwavering supporter of my research adventures. Each time we got together, which was not that often given the distance between Hawaii and Boston or Boulder, the visit went the same way: Dad would sit down at the dinner table on our first evening together and ask “So, what’s happening in the lab?” And he would really want to know! This would begin a detailed discussion and debate about experiments I was doing and why I was doing them. I told Dad I was trying to understand how the molecules encoding the chemical information needed for life came into existence, sparking many debates about the origins of the universe and how life as we know it might have evolved. Dad turned me on to books like Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” and Harold Morowitz’s “Mayonnaise and the Origin of Life”, and we would dissect the author’s thesis and arguments – and writing style! He was an English professor, after all! Those years went by all too quickly, but Dad’s intellectual support was key as I was completing my early training and struggling through various disappointments: experiments not panning out, my first scientific manuscript getting rejected for publication and various personal setbacks…Dad was always there for me.
The second thing I’ve learned since graduation is that life takes unexpected turns. And one can respond by resisting those turns, or meeting them head on. As a kid I spent a lot of time in the ocean and had many experiences with unexpected surf – turning around to find a big set of waves about to break over me, or a surprisingly strong current pulling me away from shore. And experience taught me that resisting these waves or currents resulted invariably in getting a face full of sand or getting pulled far from my starting point on the beach. Now as an adult, these experiences are somehow always in my psyche, reminding me of the analogies to life’s experiences. I found a powerful description of this C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, in which swimmers in a vast ocean are facing rogue waves, and realising that they must swim to meet them – a powerful analogy for me. I still have dreams in which I am in shallow water and facing huge powerful waves, or trying to surf waves that are many stories high… and I have come to see these dreams as reflecting my experiences with challenges in life and how one can either be crushed by those challenges, or can grab a surfboard and start paddling….When I was working daily in the lab, failures were frequent and I had to find ways of maintaining inspiration and enough optimism to carry on with my work. One source was gardening: I loved (and still love!) the immediate gratification one gets from planting flowers in a bed or raking up fallen leaves – something counteracting the delayed gratification of experimental science! I also found inspiration from the experiences of famous scientists and inventors from earlier times – for a long time I had a Thomas Edison quote above my bench in the lab: “I have not failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won't work!”
The third thing I’ve taken to heart since graduation day in 1985 is that the journey is ours to make, but it is not made in isolation. Family, friends, colleagues, students, classmates – many people offer support along the way that is crucial to staying the course. I’ve really appreciated my colleagues here at UC Berkeley – some of the best friends as well as accomplished scholars and educators once could hope to work with! And I’m continually inspired by my students at my home institution, UC Berkeley. One of my favorite stories is about a student who took my molecular biology class and asked to work in my lab. Older than most sophomores, she told me she was the first in her family to go to college, and that she had actually thought she would become a cosmetician. But while in cosmetology school she realised she was fascinated by the chemistry of hair dyes and nail polish, and after taking some chemistry classes at community college she transferred to UC Berkeley where she majored in Chemistry. Two years later she graduated summa cum laude, and is now completing an MD/PhD program with a focus on pediatrics.
So as you embark on your journey forward from today, I encourage you to seek out mentors for the next steps along your path. Embrace the twists and turns in the path. And spend time with family and friends to keep perspective on the road ahead.
Students, I salute your accomplishments and share in the joy of your achievements!
And to the University of Hong Kong, thank you again for this honorary degree, I am deeply honored to receive it.