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Seeking Magic (2013 Summer Commencement Morning Ceremony)

  • Date: 08/17/2013
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • If someone had asked me, back when I was a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, or as a master’s candidate at Ohio State – or even as an undergraduate at Emory University in Georgia – if I had a good understanding of what higher education is all about, I am fairly certain I would have confidently assured them that I did.

    And each time, I would have been wrong.

    You see, I have come to realize that universities are indeed magical places - places of discovery, places of self-discovery and places of transformation.  But I did not learn that truth at a university, but at a place called Woods Hole.

    Named for the narrow passage on the Eastern Seaboard that separates Buzzard's Bay from Vineyard Sound, Woods Hole is situated at the southernmost tip of Cape Cod and serves as the gateway to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Islands.

    It is a charming Cape Cod village, lying just south of Falmouth.  Hyannis Port, made famous by the Kennedys, is just to the east.

    Its obvious interest to visitors belies the importance of Woods Hole as a home for two major scientific institutions.

    One of these is WHOI, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, made famous by Bob Ballard and his discoveries of such famous shipwrecks as the Titanic, the Bismarck and John F. Kennedy’s famous PT-109.

    The other institution is the MBL, or Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole.  The MBL is not as widely known, but may be of greater cumulative scientific importance.

    For more than 130 summers, the MBL has hosted noted and aspiring biologists from around the world to further our knowledge of life.

    I first went to the MBL almost four decades ago.  I was awed just by the names on the buildings - Loeb and Lillie, for example - which tell much of the history of modern biology.

    An aspiring neurobiologist, I went to see where much of the cutting edge research was being done and to meet those responsible for the exciting new dimensions of my chosen field.  It was an experience I will never forget.

    Like other researchers, I returned first to collaborate with others, and eventually to work with my own team in a laboratory of our own.

    I did this only for a few summers, before the pull of organizational leadership captured my interest and energies.  But it was time enough for Woods Hole to work its magic on me as well.

    There, I worked on scientific problems that were later the subject of published articles in scientific periodicals, such as the Journal of Physiology (London), the Journal of Neurophysiology, and Vision Research.

    Today, I recall little of the content of those articles, but I do remember quite vividly the people I met at the MBL, and their ideas.

    As a young researcher, I was both challenged and inspired by the "who's who" list of modern biologists who assembled there.

    I took a lot in during those few summers.

    Some of it still calls me to the seashore, a legacy also of my childhood on the Pacific Ocean, and of a continued passion that is today expressed in sailing.

    Some of it calls me to this podium, as a means to share the collective wisdom that I experienced, and in the hope that I, too, might challenge and inspire you.

    There are many interesting experiences and lessons from the MBL that I could share with you, but for now I will focus on one man, and something he said that has a profound effect on my life.

    I remember George Wald quite clearly.  He was an unassuming man, yet he had a remarkable presence.  He was humble, yet self-assured. . . ordinary, but at times eccentrically and intelligently obvious.

    In 1967 he won a Nobel Prize for his work on the chemistry of photopigments - those molecules that first absorb light in our eyes and thus allow us to see - and on the role of vitamin A in vision.

    At the MBL, we often saw him on his daily walks, hands clasped behind his back, ambling along in jeans and a simple cotton, sleeveless shirt.  Hardly the image of a Nobel Prize winner!

    We sat with George over coffee, or chatted at the dock.  I cannot recall precisely what was said, but I do remember how engaged we were in the conversations.

    Eventually, I moved on to other work, and the MBL receded into the background of my thoughts.  The experiences, however, were brought back into sharp focus when I again encountered George Wald – or at least his words – in a recent book.

    Allow me to share them with you now, for they speak to humanity’s relentless pursuit of truth, the progressive discovery of knowledge, and the connectedness of life.  It expresses the sense that we can – we must! – ever advance our common future.

    Here is what George Wald said:

    "Surely this is a great part of our dignity…

    That we can know, and that through us matter can know itself;

    That beginning with protons and electrons, out of the womb of time and the vastness of space…

    We can begin to understand;

    That organized as in us, the hydrogen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the oxygen, those 16 to 21 elements, the water and sunlight –

    All, having become us – can begin to understand what they are, and how they came to be."[i]

    Let me say them again, for they bear repeating.

    "Surely this is a great part of our dignity…

    That we can know, and that through us matter can know itself;

    That beginning with protons and electrons, out of the womb of time and the vastness of space…

    We can begin to understand;

    That organized as in us, the hydrogen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the oxygen, those 16 to 21 elements, the water and sunlight –

    All, having become us – can begin to understand what they are, and how they came to be.”

    To me, those few short sentences capture the magic of the MBL . . . and of universities. 

    So what is the lesson for today?

    It is that the knowledge you have gained in pursuit of your degree is but a small sample of what is yet to come.  And I hope you will have the desire, the humility and the sense of wonder to continue to learn.

    Who knows, perhaps you will even add your own discoveries to the body of knowledge, which is both humanity’s greatest heritage, and its greatest hope.



    [i] Wald, George, quoted in: Philip Ball, Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water, June 2000, p. 3

  • Topic Category: Commencement Address
  • Tags: Woods Hole, George Wald, magic
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