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More About Dots (2011 Spring Commencement Address, Sunday afternoon)

  • Date: 05/08/2011
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • This afternoon I want to share some stories about three people, two who you know slightly, perhaps only by what you have read or heard, the third, somebody I hope you know very well.

    The first person is a college drop-out named Steve Jobs, who went on to become the co-founder and now CEO of Apple Inc. Jobs officially dropped out of Reed College, but kept dropping in on courses that interested him. One of those courses was a calligraphy class, where he learned about typefaces and the varying spaces between different combinations of letters.

    Many years later, in a speech he gave at Stanford University, Jobs said, "None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me.  And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts..."[i]

    He went on to observe "...Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college...you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future."[ii]

    I believe two other equally important lessons can be found in Jobs’ experience: you cannot plot the exact position of the dots, and you need a lot of them to create a full and vivid picture.

    To illustrate the point, I’ll introduce my next story. It concerns a young researcher whose career in many ways resembled the path of a pinball, bouncing from obstacles and opportunities into new directions. It was only later in life, when he read a quote from a man he much admired, that the pattern formed by the dots of his life became clear. I’m speaking, of course, of myself.

    As an aspiring neurobiologist interested in vision research, I had the good fortune to spend a few summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, situated at the southernmost tip of Cape Cod. Thirty years have passed, yet I can still recall the awe I experienced there as I came to know some of the greatest minds in biology – people such as George Wald, whose work on the role of vitamin A in vision earned him the Nobel Prize in 1967.

    For many of us, Woods Hole was where and how we spent our summers – a place where science and fun merged together; a place where great minds could be found wandering on the docks, engaged in debates about ideas that were soon to form much of modern biology. It was a magical place!

    So what happened? Why, on this spring morning, am I standing at this podium, rather than still in a laboratory?


    As it happened, in the late 1970s while I was on the faculty at the University of Georgia and somewhat on a whim, I answered an ad from the National Academies of Science. They were seeking a study director for the Committee on Vision, an applied forum related to what I did in research, and such a change of pace sounded good to me. I went to Washington D.C. and for two years was responsible for directing the committee’s programs and working-groups; maintaining funding through a network of federal agency sponsors; organizing scientific conferences, symposia, and workshops, and writing reports. I realized – I liked this kind of work.

    I returned to the University of Georgia and spent a few more years in vision research, but the Washington experience had re-awakened an earlier leadership interest and I was never the same. So I asked the president of the university if I could come to work for him and he nominated me for a program in academic leadership, and from that point on my career followed a different set of trajectories.  Eventually I was able to blend my interests by serving as a vice president for research at the University of Alaska and then at Purdue. From there I came here to Akron as your president.

    I will not test your patience with more details from my career, other than to say its course has been anything but linear. And I was well along in my life’s work when I read the quote that provided the context from which I discerned the pattern of the dots in my life.

    Recall that I mentioned George Wald as one of the pre-eminent researchers I met during my summers at Woods Hole. He was a man with a remarkable presence, yet unassuming, humble, while also eccentrically and obviously intelligent.  In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Wald wrote the following words, which resonated so profoundly in my mind so as to connect all the dots in my life. Let me share his words with you!

    "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."[iii]

    For me, those words explain the magic of universities. They speak of a relentless pursuit of truth, a progressive discovery of knowledge, and of the connectedness of all life. They bring me squarely to the realization that it is a privilege and responsibility to lead this center of learning, and to make it possible for others to explore and discover and teach and learn.  In those words I see the lines that connect the dots in my life.

    Now, at the beginning of this talk I said I would tell you about three people, and that you probably would know the third very well. And that’s because the third story is your own.

    How many dots have you accumulated during your years here? How do you plan to gain more? Where are you looking for new experiences – are you looking for new experiences? Will you recognize opportunities, even when they arrive in the appearance of challenges?

    The great French scientist Louis Pasteur famously said, "Chance favors the prepared mind."[iv] By virtue of what we recognize today, graduates, you have some claim to the title, "prepared mind." And I hope you also learned that unpreparedness can creep up on us, swiftly and silently. It is vital that you continuously broaden your minds: actively seek out new experiences, explore new ideas, embrace new opportunities, and…in doing so…collect more dots.

    Finally, remember that at some point in your career, perhaps decades from this moment, you will encounter something – a quote, a song, a snippet of conversation – that connect the dots for you, and perhaps even makes clear your reason for being. It is my heartfelt wish, graduates, that you have the good fortune to encounter it with an open mind, and the good sense to treasure it with a willing heart.

    [i] Jobs, Steve, Commencement Address delivered at Stanford University, June 12, 2005

    [ii] Jobs, Ibid

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

    [iv] Pasteur quotes, Thinkexist.com: http://thinkexist.com/quotation/chance_favors_the_prepared_mind/214449.html

  • Tags: career goals career planning Woods Hole George Wald
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