Rita Rossi Colwell

Commencement address: Rita Rossi Colwell
unedited transcript

President Hansen, distinguished faculty, Trustees, staff, family and friends, and especially members of the Bates College Class of 2004, what a great honor it is to be here on this special occasion, the College’s 138th Commencement at this special institution.

Let me first extend my congratulations to the graduates, and your families. This is a proud moment in all of your lives. I promise these remarks will not be the longest at a commencement ever given. That was a six-hour address given in the 19th century at Harvard. The first half was in Latin; the final three hours in Greek. And then the graduates were given a test. My instructions were to be sincere, be brief, and be seated [laughter].

A little over 40 years ago I arrived at Georgetown University as a young assistant professor to join the faculty of the newly established graduate program in biology. Construction of the science building had just been completed; the department had a new chairman, a scientist who had been the first to slice the bacterium into very thin sections so that its inner cell, including the fibrils of DNA could be visualized by the electron microscope. That was a major breakthrough in those years.

It was an exciting time: new faculty and staff, brand-new building, shiny new equipment, and the fledgling program in the biological sciences. The country was in an exuberant mood, with a dashing, vibrant young president, John F. Kennedy. It was a euphoric time in the life of our country. Just imagine: In those days, Georgetown was all male; the students were required to wear jackets and ties to class. The rules didn’t mention socks, so the rebellious never wore socks. How the times have changed: Professors are grateful today if students wear clothes.

But the calm —  and, yes, complacency —  was shattered by an assassin’s bullet. For us, November 1963 will always be a time when we remember where we were standing, what we were doing, at the moment we heard the tragic news. We gathered to share the sorrow and pain, and we watched, silently, standing along Pennsylvania Avenue, as the horse-drawn hearse that bore our fallen leader passed by.

Soon after, an eloquent speech was given by Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial. Then he, too, fell victim to an assassin’s bullet. The riots that followed Martin Luther King’s death were quelled by National Guardsmen who were encamped right on the Georgetown University campus. When I looked out of the windows of my office of the science building I could see soldiers, armed vehicles, and machine guns on the Quad. Vietnam unrest also left its mark on the universities throughout the country. Students marched in Washington, led protests on campus, and lobbied Congress to end the war.

You have been educated here, at Bates College, in the finest tradition. During your years spent at Bates College, you have been educated to be leaders, challenged to think out of the box. But you, too, have found your lives bracketed by tragedy: 9/11 and a war in Iraq. Whatever your views on the Iraqi war, don’t make the mistakes that were made in Vietnam, where we condemned the warriors as well as the war. This war may prove to be a tragic mistake, as Vietnam did, but we should honor those brave young men and women, most from working-class families, who are serving their country in uniform [applause.]

You are young people ready to encounter choices and make decisions. Which reminds me of another commencement speaker: Woody Allen, who offered sage counsel to another graduating class like you, but in an earlier time. He said, “More than any time in history, mankind faces a crossroads: one path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, and the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly” [laughter].

Actually, your choices are much better. In our science- and technology-powered world of ever-increasing complexity, there is a growing need for your knowledge, your know-how, as we try to understand each other in order to live in harmony, and as we continue to build toward a sustainable future. I challenge you to change the world. I know that sounds like a lofty and unrealistically ambitious goal, and likely few of us would think of announcing such power or prescience. But we all have our passion. Some of us want to write novels; some want to heal others; some want to save endangered species; and some want to uncover new knowledge, perhaps win a Nobel Prize.

But I ask you, however, to continue the Bates tradition of service to others. As you pursue your careers, find time to tutor an underprivileged child. Take Meals on Wheels to an infirm elderly citizen. Transport people with disabilities. Or play ball or watch a movie with an at-risk teenager. These are experiences that will enrich your lives and build your character, too. And always, always, be compassionate, be tolerant of your fellow human beings. Our passions are uniquely ours because we bring our own vision, our own values, and our own versatility to them. Our passions are what start us on quests to change the world. In fact, it was the distinguished educator John Gardner who said, “Democracy is measured not by its leaders doing extraordinary things but by its citizens doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.”

America has been shaped by its scientists, engineers, inventors and entrepreneurs. They have ingrained in our culture the importance of asking questions, finding answers and challenging the status quo. The transforming force of science has brought miraculous change with things that today seem ordinary to all us.

Let me share on very, very brief story.

In my career I have had the privilege and satisfaction to help understand just where in the environment the bacterium causing the infectious disease cholera makes its home. Hundreds of thousands of people in the developing world suffer the disease every year and thousands die. I’ve studied the bacterium Vibrio cholerae for more than 20 years. I’ll share a few highlights. My research has taken me to Bangladesh. It’s brought me into collaboration into other scientists and clinicians fighting the disease. During the years of my research my students and I posed scientific questions, carried out experiments that defied the conventional wisdom of the time. Many scoffed at our ideas and continued to pursue the old paradigms.

Eventually we were able to prove that the cholera bacterium is associated with plankton found in virtually all rivers and streams. But purifying water to make it safe is an elusive goal. In poverty-stricken countries like Bangladesh, boiling water to obtain safe drinking water is not an option. There is simply not enough firewood to burn. A less-expensive option is filtering out the plankton to reduce and possibly prevent the disease. We found that finely woven sari cloth was an excellent and affordable filter. The sari is a native dress for women in Bangladesh, and a team of researchers is now teaching women in remote villages how to filter their water using several folds of the cloth. We were able to reduce the incidence of the disease by nearly 50 percent by this very simple method based on previous scientific study. So our work was a small step to reducing the number of people who die each year from cholera. We were ordinary people committed to our passion and able to make a difference.

There are few things more gratifying in life than helping others to help themselves. There is still much work to be done. The toll that infectious diseases inflict on the world is enormous. Worldwide, more than 17 million people die from malaria, hepatitis, cholera, AIDS and other scourges every year. There’s an African proverb that says, “The lack of knowledge is darker than night.” There is still a lot of darkness remaining in the world. There are still many things to change for the better, and simple solutions can be powerful. We will not want for challenges, and that brings me to my conclusion.

Living in a society rooted in science and engineering brings many benefits. The value of fundamental scientific research to our lives is enormous, but it brings important responsibilities. It is not just up to scientists and engineers to decide how we apply the new discoveries from science and technology. All of us must be engaged in that discussion. The task for all of us is to understand the issues that science raises and to be informed partners in the debate about how that knowledge is used.

Your degree carries with it the superb reputation this institution has earned since its founding 149 years ago. This commencement is just the beginning of your lifelong journey in learning and in changing the world to become an ever-better, more peaceful place. And in that journey, be curious, be compassionate and be committed. We will not lack for challenges for excitement or for gratification, and I know you will change the world. Congratulations and great good luck.

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