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Voyages of Discovery

  • Date: 05/14/2000
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement, E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Ladies and gentlemen, members of the class of 2000, we continue today an ancient tradition of assembling in formal convocation to recognize those who have reached significant milestones on the road to knowledge and accomplishment.

    And so we are gathered for this commencement together with graduates from arenas of arts and sciences, fine and applied arts, and polymer science and engineering.

    With no small measure of effort and self-discipline, each of you has learned to apply critical thinking and to use new information and technologies. Along the way, you also have discovered that learning is a continuous and exciting process.

    And just when you thought that you were through with school, you have me come along today and tell you that your learning has just begun. Indeed, you have just begun a voyage of discovery!

    Not so long ago, voyages of discovery were into uncharted and unexplored regions of the planet.

    They were highly competitive, of course, and often proved profitable to those who arrived first.

    Frequently, expeditions took on the character of a race, such as the quest to be the first to reach the South Pole or the first to reach the summit of Everest.

    Today, voyages of exploration still are highly competitive, but modern expeditions are voyages of self-discovery - voyages into our very own bodies.

    (Although you are much too young, perhaps some of you may have seen the movie Fantastic Voyage in which Raquel Welch traveled through veins and arteries to reach her destination deep within the brain.)

    Today, voyages of discovery are made through scientific research.

    And perhaps nothing else today holds greater fascination than genetic research and, in particular, the mapping of the human genome.

    Genetic research, as we know it, began in 1953 when Francis Crick and James Watson published an elegantly simple paper in which they described the double helix structure of DNA.

    The idea of genetics, however, is much older. In ancient Greece, for example, Aristotle wrote that the "concept" of the chicken is contained in an egg. From your biology courses, you remember (don't you?) that in 1866, Gregor Mendel's reported on his experiments in plants that laid the groundwork for practical genetics. And in 1894, Erasmus Darwin added his own conjectures when he suggested that all organic life shares a common origin.

    But there is something different about the genetic discoveries being made today, and the difference goes well beyond our accumulated knowledge of elucidating the molecular structure of DNA during the last fifty years. The difference lies in the progress now being made in mapping the human genome.

    This week, researchers at Celera Genomics, a biotechnology company in Rockville, Maryland, in a race against a rival team at the National Institutes of Health, are expected to announce that they have finished the first 'complete' map of the human genome.

    If the significance of that announcement is a bit hard to comprehend, let me tell you about it by using some of the powerful words recently written by Matt Ridley, editor of The Economist magazine, and I shall both paraphrase and quote.

    ". . . (we now) have a rough first draft of the complete human genome," writes Mr. Ridley.

    And then he continues: "(Although) This is routinely reported as an event of medical and perhaps ethical significance, I believe it is more than that. I believe it is the greatest intellectual moment in history. Bar none."

    "Some may protest that a human being is more than his or her genes. I do not deny it. There is much, much more to each of us than a genetic code.

    But until now, human genes were an almost complete mystery. We will be the first generation to penetrate it."

    "The genome is a sort of autobiographical record, (clearly written) of all the vicissitudes and inventions that have characterized the history of our species and its ancestors since the dawn of life.

    Genes have already told us that we are the closest relatives of chimpanzees; that the common ancestor of fruit flies and people was a 600 million-year-old segmented worm with the ability to learn; that the Basques are as unrelated to other Eurasians as their language implies and may be descended from indigenous European hunter-gatherers."

    And as we learned this past week, genes can tell us that Israelis and Palestinians are far more closely related genetically than their political differences might suggest. Because as Dr. Harry Ostrer recently put it, "Jews and Arabs are all really children of Abraham."

    Unlike other autobiographies, the genome contains stories about the future as well as the past.

    Among the genes are clear messages about what will happen to your body as you age, a few of which we can already read.

    There is a gene, for example, that can alter your susceptibility to Alzheimer's disease eleven fold, depending on whether its 334th letter is G or A."

    "The idea of the genome as a book - longer than 800 Bibles yet so small that there are trillions of copies inside each one of us - is not even a metaphor.

    It is literally true. A book is a piece of digital information, written in linear, one-dimensional and one-directional form and defined by a code that transliterates a small alphabet of signs into a large lexicon of meanings through the order of their groupings. So is a genome."

    "It was genes that prescribed my shape, gave me five fingers on each hand and 32 teeth in my mouth, laid down my capacity for language and defined about half of my intellectual capacity."

    ***

    WOW! That is powerful writing about powerful knowledge - knowledge that will now be ours to apply in years to come as the next chapter is written in medical science.

    As is always the case in science, sequencing the genome is only the first step in a long journey.

    The journey that follows is one of discovering how our genetic make-up codes for specific proteins, which, in turn, control processes such as development, growth, and abnormalities that result in disease and illness.

    Having a complete genetic blueprint will allow the medical community to systematically design new classes of genetically engineered drugs and new treatments. We may never unravel all of life's mysteries, yet every day is an adventure, and we are the pioneers striking out into some unknown territory.

    And in this new knowledge economy, scientific research is the tool we use to create the ideas and technologies that shape new industries and new destinies.

    You, too, will now go forth to create your future and, along the way, you will surely contribute to our collective futures. After all, it was the discoveries that were made before us that created our present.

    Your educational experience at The University of Akron is part of that collective set of past voyages of discovery - of accumulated and shared knowledge.

    As you now open doors of opportunity, you become part of that progressive and collective advancement of our great country.

    Treasure it, nurture it, and continue to learn.

    Our collective future depends on it!

    On behalf of the Trustees, the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students, and The University of Akron family everywhere - I salute you, the Spring 2000 graduates, together with your family and friends who have helped make your success possible.

    Congratulations.

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