Honorand citation: Bonnie Bassler

Bonnie Bassler

Presented by Valerie Smith ’75, Board of Trustees

President Cable, I am honored to present my friend and my esteemed Princeton University colleague, Bonnie Bassler.

On this day of pride and celebration, we welcome a groundbreaking scientist who, right now, is probably experiencing a much larger Commencement gathering than the rest of us.

That’s because molecular biologist Bonnie Bassler is always cognizant of the billions of unseen guests that accompany us wherever we go: the bacteria that are so much a part of our biological makeup that, in a sense, we are more bacterial than human.

What Bonnie and her Princeton team famously discovered in 2001 is that these microbes communicate with each other. Whether their genetic mission is to make you ill on a cruise or help you digest this afternoon’s lobster roll, bacteria use a chemical language called quorum sensing to help them gather and work as a cooperative team.

This discovery has paved the way for scientific discovery in two directions. By disrupting microbial conversations, scientists can fight bacterial superbugs. By supporting bacterial communication, we can help our many microbial allies work better together.

Because Bates cultivates intellectual discovery and informed civic action — one that prizes the symbiosis of knowledge and communication — we also honor the infectious enthusiasm with which Bonnie communicates science. With the soul of a standup comedian, she uses her incisive wit and her gift for apt metaphor to widen public awareness of science, making that knowledge more valuable to our society. Who else but Bonnie would think to describe microbial conversations as “bacterial Esperanto”?

In its profile of her, Smithsonian Magazine says that Bonnie’s remarkable achievements — a MacArthur “genius” award, a coveted position with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, presidency of the American Society for Microbiology and her recent election as a fellow of the Royal Society — can be traced to her “deep appreciation for the power of communication. Messaging is the medium in which Bassler shines.”

With gratitude for the bright light she shines on this gathering today, I present Bonnie Bassler for the degree Doctor of Science.

Conferral by Interim President Nancy Cable

Bonnie Bassler, your discovery of quorum sensing and its astounding impact on research strategies vividly reminds us once again that whether at the microbial level or in our own human sphere, success of the many requires full cooperation from all; you are a public scholar of immense talent, humor and good will, and your gifts to society are a national treasure. Therefore, by the authority vested in me by the Board of Trustees, I hereby confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Science, with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities which here and everywhere pertain to this degree.