Commencement 2012: honorand Bonnie Bassler remarks (text and video)

Thank you, Val [Smith ’75, trustee presenter], for that lovely introduction.

Congratulations to the Bates Class of 2012. What an honor for me to stand here. Gazing out at you, I feel as if I’m seeing the future. And, it looks exciting. A huge congratulations to all of you on this day that celebrates your wonderful achievements.

Now, enough about you, let’s please talk about me [laughter].

Do any of you have any idea what it is like to be me? Do you see who I am sitting next to? In your mind, can change places with me and imagine what this feels like to be me.

Here is what being me is about today:

I knew coming into this that the honorary degree recipients will speak in alphabetical order and that I have the bad luck of having a last name beginning with B.

Oh, and I well know that I have been chosen for this honor because I’m “the academic.” I represent excellence in scholarship. I also know that the academic is the person at these grand events that no one has ever heard of [laughter].

Even worse, I know that beyond being an academic, I’m a “scientist.” The audience is dreading my talk because they assume they will be tortured about some esoteric subject that has no relevance to life.

If only the academic scientist whose last name starts with B would get it over with, Robert De Niro and Gwen Ifill could give their talks [[laughter], and you, the graduates, your parents, your families and the faculty could get to what they’ve been waiting for.

Would any of you trade places with me? Does any of you want to me be?

No! As you look forward in your lives, you want to be them [laughter].

I did too.

But now, I want to be me.

So who am I, and why is it so good to be me. What can a scientist say that is useful to you on this glorious day where you pass from being a student to being “an adult.”

Your job for the past 22 or so years has been to take in knowledge and to learn. That’s it. You started with keeping eye contact, then mimicking your parents’ speech, then crawling, walking and feeding yourself. You probably learned to ride a bike and later to drive a car. You have been forced to learn some manners and to read and write and do math. Hopefully, in these past four years, you have learned to be clever and to make sound judgments.

You may have augmented those abilities by practicing athletics or you learned a musical instrument. You’ve had one job in your entire life and that was to let, typically older people, dump stuff into you. Your only responsibility was to try to retain some of it and, hopefully, begin to figure out which sliver of all that stuff is remotely interesting to you so you can make “a career choice” once you get out of here.

Somehow, inevitably, over the course of this day you are officially converted from the takers into the makers and the givers of knowledge. You are now responsible for keeping our society prosperous. It is now your job to keep this country at peace. You are now the stewards of this fragile planet and it’s your job is to sustain it. Oh, and by the way, while you are being good stewards of the environment, you also have to simultaneously think up ways to feed and house nine billion people. It is your job to help them all have a chance at a long and healthy and educated life, just as you expect to have.

When I was sitting where you are sitting today — at UC Davis — the gulf between my chair and this podium was infinite. For sure, there was some unmemorable academic spouting about taking on world challenges. Honestly, I don’t have a clue who that was. But I do remember thinking, “What a bunch of baloney.” That speech was to rally the special people among the graduates, the smart people, the going-somewhere people, the together people, the confident people. Not me. That speech was not for the regular graduates like me. His speech was for the ones of us who would grow up to be somebody, the ones who knew where they were going. Bottom line: The speech was for the Robert De Niros and the Gwen Ifills of the UC–Davis Class of 1984.

And the Bonnie Basslers.

And you.

When I was sitting where you’re sitting, I had been living for 22 years with a very very loud internal critic, telling me, “You don’t measure up.” I knew that somehow other people were smart or pretty or athletic or gifted or talented or remarkable. But I was normal.

Now look at me: I’m on the stage with Gwen Ifill and Robert De Niro [laughter]! And do you want to know why? It is because I’ve done something. You heard what Dean Smith said about me. You want to know what else? I never saw it coming, I never planned this. I did not understand that I was a Gwen Ifill, I was a Robert De Niro. I was you in the UC–Davis Class of 1984.

I was terrified.

I never imagined I would be this happy, this fulfilled, this excited! My life is a blast. I get to play games and do puzzles all day every day. I get to live a life of curiosity and discovery. I spend my time thinking about things that no one has ever thought about before. Plus, I influence policy makers and thought leaders. I decide where your tax money is going to go to fund science and technology of the future. I go to the White House on a regular basis.

So how do you go from where you’re sitting to where I’m standing? You do it by finding, or better yet, by making your own adventure. It can be science, it can be acting, it can be journalism. It can be anything, so long as you love it — even if it is challenging or scary or sometimes disappointing. You get here by “doing it.” You do it by paying attention. You do it by thinking. You do it by jumping in and trying your best. You do it by not saying no because you are scared that you might fail.

I have no training as a teacher, as a lab head, as a policy maker, or as a commencement speaker. All I really know how to do is to grow bacteria. During every transition in my life, I have been scared, and I have thought, “I can’t do it.” But there is a big difference between not wanting to do something and being afraid to do something. When I don’t want to do something, I say, “No, thank you.” When I consider not doing something because I’m scared that I could fail, I say yes.

Let’s go back to being me today. I didn’t want to give this speech because I don’t want to fail. I did not want to give the one speech that no one wants to hear. I am intimidated by Gwen Ifill and Robert De Niro. I am intimidated by you. But I’m here. I’m here because this is part of the adventure that Bonnie Bassler is making for herself. What a blast to be on this stage. Even if I do fail, I won’t die from this. The worst thing that can happen if I give a crummy speech is that everyone will be polite to me today, they’ll whisper behind my back about how awful it was, and then completely forget about me.

But, I will have given this speech. I will have tried to tell you something about my life. Perhaps, if I give a good speech, it will be meaningful because some of you have similar feelings. But for me, I will have gone on a new adventure. I will have done something that I never saw coming. Giving this speech will enable me to say yes to something in the future that will be even scarier.

If I had one thing I could do over again, I would have learned to say yes in the face of fear much sooner in my life. I hope this talk can inspire you to do that. All the nice things Dean Smith said about me happened after I started saying yes in the face of fear, after I stopped being a bystander.

You won’t get up to this podium if you don’t take a risk. Now, I’m not telling you to be an idiot. You can read and write and do math and you have been educated by Bates to be a critical thinker and to have good judgment. Use all of that for something you love and start doing that soon. You know that old saying, “Just say no”? I say, “Just say yes.” Make an adventure for yourself. You’ll have a ball.