Thanks to some outside pressure (read: no one else wanted to do it), I ended up being the student speaker at the 2016 MCB Commencement Ceremony. I was preceded by the indomitable Stuart Firestein, who had a brilliantly hilarious speech about the twists and turns in his own scientific career, as well as the tenuous nature of scientific discovery – “it’s like looking for a black cat in a dark room…except the cat might not even exist.” It was a tough act to follow, but I guess someone had to do it.
I have to admit I had a lot of trouble figuring out what to say here today. So when I asked around for ideas, I was given two very valuable pieces of advice. First, I was told that there is no such thing as a good graduation speech, so it’ll be ok, you can’t screw it up too much. Second, keep it short. People will only remember your speech if it’s too long.
So, to honor this advice, and to honor the short attention spans characteristic of my generation, I present to you a list of five decidedly un-scientific skills you won’t believe we learned during our PhDs! Here goes:
- Appreciating delayed gratification. Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Science is doing the same thing over and over again, except we do change one small thing at a time, so sometimes we get different results. I guess we can call that borderline insanity. Most experiments take umpteen attempts before we get any interesting results, so I’ve learned to savor the waiting, to persevere despite the failings, and most importantly, to re-motivate myself with large slabs of chocolate.
- Finding support. Everyone has this image in their head of a scientist sitting in dank, windowless basement, all alone in a mess of fluorescent potions and sinister glassware. For some of us, the dark basement may still be true, but I’ve learned that we never do it alone. Between our labs and our peers, we’ve been lucky to have such a great community – and email listserv – that is always willing to help. Need advice on a new experiment? Email the list. A reagent at 11pm on a Friday night? Email the list. Recommendations on multi-channel pipettes? Email the list! We’ve also been lucky to have a department that helps us with emotional support, encouraging us to drink together on Fridays. There’s the MCB Graduate Network, started by students on this stage, that provides student-to-student mentorship and support. There’s also career support: a weekly Careers Seminar to help us figure out what to do with the rest of our lives; a new Alumni Association, of which we will all be proud members. We couldn’t have done it alone.
- Not sounding too smart. A few weeks ago, I was introducing myself at a party. I said I was a grad student, studying biochemistry. “Oh? So what exactly do you study?” Before I even had a chance to say anything, I got a “Just kidding, I’m not going to understand any of it, so don’t bother.” I know they were probably just trying to be funny, but it’s true that people are often intimidated by science. So we’ve had to get creative and find ways to engage our audiences. I talk about how a lot of biology is just things fitting into other things, like puzzle pieces, and I study how they fit together. The paradox is that the smarter you sound, the less likely people will understand you, so the smarter you are, the less smart you try to sound. Or, we just take the easy route and tell everyone – especially those grant reviewers – that we work on curing cancer.
- Storytelling. I used to read papers and be totally awed by how perfect the data would be. But I’ve learned that a good science story is not just about having good data – it’s also about telling a good story. We’ve learned how to take separate pieces of data that might not make a lot of sense by themselves, and stitch them together in a sequence that actually tells a logical, elegant story. Never mind the fact that the experiments in figure four were done a whole year and a half before those in figure one. The title of this speech, “If on a winter’s night a scientist” is a reference to Italo Calvino’s novel, “if on a winter’s night a traveller,” and it’s not just because I wanted to sound smart. In this book, the chapters alternate between the even-numbered chapters which are the beginnings of totally different novels, and the odd-numbered chapters that fill in a story – part detective story, part awkward romance – of how the book got to be so jumbled and why it all makes sense. When Calvino published it, literary critics hailed it as a work of postmodern genius: all these separate pieces that had to come together to make a complete work. Science is like that too: each experiment is seemingly piecemeal, but we put it together and present it in a way that makes sense. And obviously, those critics never read my thesis.
- Managing people. I can’t actually say we’re pros at this, since management skills is one thing that is egregiously missing from every single graduate school curriculum. But we’ve done it. We’ve handled rooms full of rowdy undergrads who all want their exams regraded. We’ve mastered the art of passive aggressive emails to the lab reminding everyone to wash their dishes. We’ve learned how to predict experiments that our bosses – and our reviewers – might ask for, so that they can feel good when they suggest them, and we can feel good about being one step ahead of the game.
So there you have it: we thought we were just here to do some pipetting, but turns out we gained some questionably useful skills along the way.
Now, at the end of every science talk, there’s always the acknowledgements, where we thank the collaborators, labmates, funding sources, but they’re always missing the everyday heroes in our lives who allow us to be who we are, many of whom have traveled far to be here with us today: our families, our friends, our teachers, our peers. I also need to acknowledge the administrative staff, who go above and beyond their very limited resources here to make sure that we get the reagents we need, that we can navigate the unbearable mess of BearFacts and TeleBears and bear this-or-that to register for classes, and that we get paid, even if it is very little. We owe you all our utmost gratitude, and also the deepest apologies that we didn’t decide to become the more useful kind of doctors.
We live in an exciting age of new discovery. Here at Berkeley, we’re at the forefront of so many biotechnological revolutions – sequencing, gene editing, biofuels – so many technologies are on the cusp of real change. But we also live in a tenuous time when anti-intellectualism and mis-information are allowed run rampant. This is a time when scientific literacy and education are more important than ever. Many of us will not stay in research. Some of us might not even stay in science. But the high standards of scientific rigor that we have honed here will stay with us forever, and I know that each person here has more than what it takes to make America great again.