Reaching for the STARS

On Friday, I had the privilege of giving the challenge address to the graduates of STARS – Students and Teachers as Research Scientists at UMSL.  The STARS program pairs promising high school students and their teachers with research labs to get research experience during the summer.  Kenneth Mares has been providing great leadership to the program.

Here’s my talk:

Thank you, Kenneth, and congratulations to the graduates of Students and Teachers as Research Scientists!! It is an honor to be your speaker today.

I have the privilege of serving as the provost of Washington University. During your time in the program, some of you may have learned what a provost is. I’m the chief academic officer, which means I’m responsible for all of the classes and research at WashU. For Harry Potter fans, that means I have the same job as Professor McGonagall.

Professor McGonagall is the chief academic officer at Hogwarts.

And that means that if you want to go up to see Dumbledore, you’ve got to talk to me first.

Before I went into administration, I was a chemistry professor with a lab. I worked with graduate students and postdocs and students like you on lots of different things, mostly having to do with electron transfer reactions and nucleic acids. My students have all gone on to do amazing things and I get very excited when I hear from them.

So write back to your research mentors every once in a while and let them know what you are up to. I promise you they will love it.

You made a bold and important decision by deciding to be part of the program. You made a decision to find out what science really is. We’re glad. We have a hard time explaining what we do to a lot of folks. Most of them won’t take the time that you have invested to learn about the process of science.

We hope you stay. We need people who understand science and who are excited about it. To try to make sure you continue in science, I want to cover three things that I think you’ve learned these last few weeks.

Science is done in teams

When I was deciding to go to graduate school at Caltech, I had the choice of going to medical school, as well. I followed my dream to be a scientist, but my mother was not exactly thrilled with my decision. She used to ask me, “Don’t you want to work with people?” She thought scientists worked by themselves. Years later, she realized that I worked with people even more closely than physicians do.

All of you figured that out these last few weeks if you didn’t already know it. You learned that research groups are places where people from all over work with each other in many different ways. They bat ideas around and come up with new things. They do experiments that help each other understand their research problems. And yes, sometimes they compete.

You all may be familiar with the exciting CRISPR technology that has the potential to change our ability to manipulate genes. Some of you may know that there is a dispute over who invented it, either Jennifer Doudna and her group and Berkeley or Feng Zhang at the Broad Institute. From doing research yourself, you now know why these kinds of disputes can arise. One piece of science builds on another, and ideas don’t fall out of the sky fully formed.

So you may think that CRISPR owes a lot to the discovery of restriction enzymes by Hamilton Smith, or to the formulation of the DNA structure by Watson and Crick, which owes a lot to the beautiful X-ray photographs of Rosalind Franklin, which owes a lot to Gregor Mendel and all the way back to Charles Darwin. So while we may get very caught up in who did what from time to time, we really know that science is a seamless fabric that gets woven one human saga after another.

All of you are part of that fabric now.

So point one: science is done in teams.

Science is beautiful

Point two is that science is beautiful. I’m partial to the periodic table, of course, which is especially beautiful. How amazing that if you arrange elements by increasing atomic number in the right way that you see all of these common properties! And even though I’m biased, I’ll concede that evolution and quantum mechanics are also beautiful.

And CRISPR. And restriction enzymes. And relativity.

What’s even more beautiful is how these things were discovered. Most people think that scientists just stand around writing formulas on a blackboard or doing big experiments that have lots of wires and boiling flasks.

You all know better than that. The periodic table was worked out by people who liked to burn things and weigh them afterwards. Darwin figured out evolution by drawing pictures of birds. And quantum mechanics was developed by a patent clerk.

These people didn’t have big machines or lots of formulas with Greek letters. What they had was an insatiable need to find out why. Why some substances gained weight when they were burned. Why birds with unusual beaks were in an isolated archipelago. Why metals emit electrons when exposed to light.

They figured out that DNA goes to RNA goes to protein by cutting out pieces of cardboard.

And they did have something that not everyone has. And that is an excitement about what they were doing and what they were finding that inspired others to want to learn more.

You have that now. You’ve seen the excitement of doing things that no person has done before. You’ve felt the joy of thinking something for the first time. You are part of the history of knowledge, just like Charles Darwin, Dmitri Mendeleev, Albert Einstein, and Jennifer Doudna.

Science needs you

Which brings me to my third point: we need you. We need people who understand that science doesn’t just drop out of the sky already written up in textbooks. We need people who understand that human beings create ideas and test them. We need people who believe that science is beautiful and are so excited about it that others will see the same thing.

Your teachers who came with you are people who can do that. Thank you to all of you for bringing your students and being part of the human saga of scientific research.

There’s another reason that we need you, and that’s that most scientists look like me. I had to work to get Rosalind Franklin and Jennifer Doudna into my story. That’s not OK. And the irony is that we know from science that there is nothing about being a specific race or gender that makes you good at science or anything else.

Now there’s only one way to fix it. The first part is for science to figure out all the messages we send that cause folks to feel they don’t belong and stop sending them. And to say this: we’re wrong and we’re sorry to those we’ve excluded.

The second part is for exciting and excited people like you to come join the story of science. You’ve taken the first step by being in STARS. You can take more steps by attending a research university and being involved in undergraduate research. From there, the sky’s the limit.

And if anyone does anything that makes you feel that you don’t belong, tell them Professor McGonagall needs to see them right way.

You’re right on schedule

Some of you may be thinking that you don’t know how you’re going to change the world yet. That happens a lot when people listen to these kinds of speeches. Let me tell you something important: you’re right on schedule. You made the right choice to come to STARS. You’ll figure out the next one.

And there couldn’t be a better time to do it. Because we need help and most of the things we need help on require scientists and people who understand science.

We need folks who know that the earth is warming at an alarming rate, that humans are the cause of it, and that the solution is to change how we acquire and use energy.

We need folks who realize that we cure diseases for people with resources faster than we do for those without – and that the solution is to have the courage to study the diseases that need the most attention.

We need folks who understand that the level of national and international conflict is unbearable — and that the solution is to study the human brain and the data that lead to solutions.

A lot of people think John Lennon was the first to talk about dreamers. But he’s not the only one. Long before, Harriet Tubman said, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

You are the dreamers. You are reaching for the stars.

You are the STARS.

Congratulations to the STARS of 2016.

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