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Woods Hole

  • Date: 12/17/2005
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Universities are magical places - places of discovery, places of self-discovery and places of transformation.

    That is why many of you have heard me say that The University of Akron is a place where you can dream and dare and do the things that it takes to change the world.

    Ironically, I learned about the magic of universities not 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, most recently made famous by Bob Ballard and his discoveries of the sunken Titanic and the giant tubeworms that live along the hot vents of the deep ocean trenches.

    The other institution is the MBL, or Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole; of lesser public renown, but possibly of greater cumulative scientific importance.

    For 127 summers, noted and aspiring biologists from around the world have gathered at the MBL to further our knowledge of life.

    It is now some 30 years ago that I first went to the MBL, 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.

    I returned often, as many do, 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 energies. But it was enough time for Woods Hole to work its magic.

    At Woods Hole, 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, little of which I remember today.

    What I do remember is more personal and at the same time more abstract, because it represents the people I met and their ideas.

    I won't bore you with the "who's who" list of modern biologists that assemble every summer at the MBL. Suffice it to say that they were decidedly inspiring to this then-young biologist.

    I took a lot in, those few summers at the MBL.

    Some of it 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.

    One thing bears repeating, however, namely the sense of being in the presence of true scientific genius.

    It was George Wald whom I remember most clearly - a man with a remarkable presence, yet unassuming . . . self-assured, yet humble . . . ordinary, yet eccentrically and intelligently obvious.

    He had already won his 1967 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.

    We saw him on his daily walks, hands clasped behind his back, walking purposely, dressed in jeans and a simple cotton sleeveless shirt. Hardly the image of a Nobel Prize winner!

    We sat with him over coffee, or chatted at the dock, as we did with many others.

    As the years passed, the MBL soon receded into the background of my thoughts, but what those experiences meant to me were recently brought sharply into focus when I again encountered George Wald - his words now echoed in a recent book.

    I quote:

    "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, the sunlight - all, having become us, can begin to understand what they are, and how they came to be."
    (George Wald, quoted in: Philip Ball, Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water, June 2000, p. 3)

    Listen to his words again, so that you can begin to savor them, just as I have many times.

    "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, the sunlight - all, having become us, can begin to understand what they are, and how they came to be."
    (George Wald, quoted in: Philip Ball, Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water, June 2000, p. 3)

    There, in a few short sentences, lies the magic of the MBL; the magic of universities. It lies in the relentless pursuit of truth, in the progressive discovery of knowledge, in the connectedness of life, in the sense that we can, and we must, advance our common future.

    Through your experiences here at The University of Akron, with your professors and your colleagues, with our visitors and with our libraries, I hope that you, too, will have gleaned just a bit of this magic; and having sensed it, that you will now nurture it in your life.

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