Make A Difference

Chancellor George, Dr. Cope, Dean Darby, distinguished guests and, most of all, graduates of the Class of 2005.  Congratulations on achieving this milestone in your lives.  You have worked long and hard to receive your degree – many if not most of you have worked full or part-time while attending the University.  My hat, or should I say mortar board, is off to you for this very special achievement.  It is an honor for me to be asked to address you today.

You are beginning, commencing if you will, the most exciting, productive years of your life – well educated and equipped to begin this adventure.  Yet, in many ways, today is a most daunting time to begin a career for the world is changing at almost warp speed.  The rate of change keeps accelerating – the achievements of the past dwarfed by the accomplishments of the present, just as those of the future will surpass those of today.

Last week, I was listening to a program on KWMU about Jackie Robinson, one of my boyhood heroes.  It occurred to me that television was not available in 1947 when Jackie joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.  And today when we sit at Busch Stadium, the idiot invariably standing up in front of me is transmitting his or her picture by cell phone to some other idiot waving from across the field.  I guess that it is progress.

My remarks today will focus chiefly on the world in which you will be practicing – a world driven by science and technology as never before.  But, I also want to issue you a challenge, and along the way I may offer you some “words to live by”.

I have chosen three developments that are already impacting society and will clearly influence the future – nanoscience, globalization, and the human genome.  I could have picked others such as global climate change and new ways of producing energy.  What I want to emphasize is not the details of these technologies, but the enormous changes being brought about by science and technology in our work and in our everyday lives.  Whatever your major, these changes or one’s like them will affect your career.

I’ll begin with nanoscience, the science of particles and systems measured in nonometers – one billionth of a meter.  To bring that into perspective, the human hair is about 100,000 nm in diameter.  One is truly operating at the atomic or molecular level.  At this scale, materials and particles behave differently.

Conceptually, anything we do at normal scale can also be accomplished at the nanoscale level.  Think of the miniaturization of the computer and the cell phone and we still are not operating at the nanoscale level. Work is ongoing at removing air and water pollutants using nanoparticles; increasing several fold the power of magnets; creating new, longer wearing coating materials; and then there are buckminsterfullerenes or bucky balls which resemble nanoscale geodesic spheres such as the geodesic dome at the Missouri Botanical Garden – experiments are being performed to see if bucky balls can help diagnose and treat brain tumors: and the list goes on and on.  Nanoscience will change the medical, engineering, and technology fields and affect everyday products over the next decade. 

The World Is Flat  is a most thought provoking book by Thomas Friedman, distinguished columnist of the New York Times.  In the 21st Century, the way we provide services and products is changing dramatically.  We are operating in a truly global economy – the worldwide competitive field has been leveled – the world is flat! 

Mr. Friedman argues that the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989, was the first “flattener” ultimately unleashing the talents of millions of educated Eastern Europeans into the global economy.  Moreover, it encouraged dramatic changes in India and China with millions more entering the global workforce.  There  are other ‘flatteners” including web browsers, broad band fiber optic cables, outsourcing, insourcing, offshoring, informing, supply chain management, and finally the wireless digital personal devices like the cell phone, iPOD, and the Blackberry.

A couple of examples.  Earlier this year, my laptop malfunctioned.  It was picked up by UPS and shipped back to IBM for repair or so I thought.  In reality, it went to UPS’s hub in Louisville where UPS repaired it in their shop under contract to IBM and had it back in my hands in three days.  This is what is called insourcing.

Many of us do part of our Christmas shopping by catalog.  As you may have discovered this year,  many of the orders to catalog retailers such as LL Bean are filled not by the retailer, but directly from one of their suppliers.  Major changes in supply chain management,  many of them fostered by Walmart, FedEx, and UPS.

Not one of the factors cited by Mr. Friedman would have flattened the world alone.  As they converged together near the end of the 20th Century, however, they have forever changed our lives.  To quote Mr. Friedman: 
       “The net result of this convergence was the creation of a global, 
       Web-enabled playing field that allows for multiple forms of 
       collaboration – the sharing of knowledge and work – in real-time,
       without regard to geography, distance, or … even language …
       it is open today to more people in more places on more days 
       in more ways than anything like it ever in the history of the world
       … the world has been flattened”.

Molecular biology and life sciences – another new wave perhaps best exemplified by the mapping of the human genome.  An extraordinary amount of excitement and activity has been generated in the biomedical and pharmaceutical community by the completion of this monumental task.  Across the globe, teams are exploring ways to diagnose diseases, design new drugs, and develop gene therapy to reduce the impact of genetic disorders.

A related area of biomedical research that holds great promise is with stem cells.  Stem cells , especially embryonic stem cells, seem to have the ability to differentiate themselves into tissues for all parts of the body.  Conceivably, we can repair weakened heart muscle, regenerate damaged spinal cord nerves, replace brain tissue in Alzheimer patients, restore sight, and even cure baldness.  There are important ethical issues that must be addressed in stem cell research and treatment – clearly none of us would approve of human cloning – but the promise of cures for disease and repairs for injuries demands that we pursue ethical stem cell research. 

Here in Missouri, as you are undoubtedly aware, an amendment to our state constitution has been proposed to protect the rights of patients to receive treatment and scientists to conduct research on stem cells to the extent permitted by federal law.  When it reaches the ballot next year, read it carefully and vote with reason.

Yet with all of these advances in the medical field, the world is still faced with the AIDS epidemic in Africa and the threat of an avian bird flu pandemic.  There is much to be done and your generation will be the one to do it. 

Nanoscience, advances in life sciences, a flat world - three key drivers in the world in which you will work.  I hope you are beginning to appreciate not only the magnitude of these technological changes, but the speed with which they are being thrust upon us.   We have never lived in a world so influenced by scientific developments.  Some of you are probably thinking, “All of that is fine, but does it really affect us here in St. Louis?”  The answer is a resounding “Yes!” 

Let me take just two examples.  First, the Danforth Plant Science Center, the Missouri Botanical Garden, Monsanto, and our universities are world leaders in the development of genetically modified food crops – crops that can alleviate the food shortages and famines that exist in many parts of the globe. 

Second, with the massive changes in supply chain management and with our central location, could not St. Louis become a critical node in the distribution of product?  The partnership between The University of Missouri, St. Louis and Express Scripts is another example of how information technology and distribution have converged.  Thousands of jobs, perhaps yours, depend on our ability to understand and use these new concepts.

So as you leave this auditorium today to begin or continue your careers, you will have many challenges and great opportunities.  Whatever your major, you now have the skills, the training, and the intelligence to “make a difference in our community, the nation, and the world”

I like that phrase “to make a difference” – it’s one of my “words or thoughts to live by”.  I’ll come back to it in a moment.  A few others:

  • Do what you love.  Whatever your field, find a job that you really enjoy – it will fill every day with a feeling of accomplishment.
  • Believe in yourself.  You are here today because you have the talent and drive to succeed.
  • Wherever You Go, There You Are” – the title of a favorite book of mine by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  Learn from the past, but do not live in it.  You are where you are at this moment, listening to some engineer in a green robe.  Your life is what you make of it today and in the future,.
  • Seek the truth and maintain high ethical standards.  Regardless of what others are doing around you, maintain your moral compass.
  • Pursue knowledge throughout your life.  As Confucius, the great Chinese philosopher stated “By nature, people are pretty much alike, it is learning and practice that sets them apart”.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly.  Whether you fully realize it or not, this fine university has been training you to “think critically”.  Not to criticize in the negative sense, but to examine issues carefully, evaluate the pros and cons, and to reach sound conclusions.
  • As Rudyard Kipling said “If you can deal with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same…”  Learn how to deal with success and failure.  Don’t get too puffed up at the former nor too hard on yourself when a setback occurs.  No one is perfect.
  • Take time to enjoy your family and friends – and don’t forget to call Mom and Dad every week.

I want to close with a story from Taylor Malithe slam poet. For those of you not familiar with the term, a slam poet is one who enacts the reading of his or her poetry, a hip hop poet if you will.  Mr. Mali was an elementary and secondary school teacher for some years. My wife, who has put up with me for 45 years, was a teacher for much of that time.  She still considers me one of her failures as a teacher.  So in her honor, here is a slightly modified  version of one of Taylor Mali’s poems, What Teachers Make.
   “ He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true what they say about 
    teachers:  Those who can, do; those who can’t teach.
    You’re a teacher, Taylor, what do you make.
    You want to know what I make?
    I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
    I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
    and a A- feel like a slap in the face.
    How dare you waste my time with less than your very best.
    I make parents tremble with fear when I call home:
    I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,
    I just wanted to talk to you about something Billy said today.
    Billy said, “Leave the kid alone.  I still cry sometimes, don’t you?”
    And it was the noblest act of courage I have ever seen.
    You want to know what I make?
     I make kids wonder,
     I make them question,
     I make them criticize.
     I make them write and spell,
     I make them show all their work in math
     And hide it on their final drafts in English.
     I make them understand that if you got brains
     Then follow your heart and if someone ever tries to judge you
      by what you make , you tell them to stuff it.
     Let me break it down for you,
     I make a difference!  What about you?”

That is my challenge to you. Make a difference!  It’s what life is all about.