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Purdue professor, leading virologist to Ph.D. grads: You are an instrument of change; use your wisdom boldly and without fear

Richard Kuhn, the Trent and Judith Anderson Distinguished Professor in Science and the Krenicki Family Director of the Purdue Institute of Inflammation, Immunology and Infectious Disease, made these remarks to Ph.D. candidates during their Purdue commencement on Aug. 7, 2021. 

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Good afternoon, candidates, colleagues, friends, and families! I first offer my sincere congratulations to all of our doctoral candidates. I am thrilled to be asked to speak with you as I know your talent is great and ready to be unleashed. Shortly, you will be conferred with the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, the highest formal degree in your chosen field; sometimes referred to as a “terminal degree,” which sounds somewhat negative to me. But the Ph.D. degree identifies you as a lover of wisdom. Who thought four or five years ago you were joining a program that would result in you being a lover of wisdom? If I told my parents back in the day that I wanted to continue in school for a few more years for a degree that would identify me as a lover of wisdom, they would have thought I was crazy. On the other hand, if I told them I was studying how to generate new knowledge, that they could appreciate. However, knowledge needs to be applied, and combined with experience and good judgment to move us closer to wisdom – the wisdom we need to make the world a better place.

For most, if not all, of you, the last few years have been intellectually stimulating, high times of stress and anxiety, and dreams of a brighter future. For some of you, you have followed in your parents’ footsteps, maybe not in the same field, but like them, pursuing an advanced academic degree. For many others, you have gone farther than any in your family, being a beacon of light and pride for your parents, relatives and friends. Neither of my parents went to college, but they understood the value of an education and told me that an education is unlike anything else we work for – it cannot be taken away! A simple thought that you, too, have probably heard before, but I want each of you to always remember it. Although my parents were able to see much of my success, I am not sure they realized how far my Ph.D. took me. However, they measured some of this success based on my travels. As someone who works on infectious disease, I have spent a lot of time traveling to different parts of the world. My father would always ask where I was going. Nowhere in the U.S. made an impact on him – he said that was local travel. I would say Manila, Hanoi, Sapporo, Bangkok, he would not bat an eye but ask why I have not been to Russia – this from someone who only left the U.S. once! I could never figure out why he would always ask me that question. But my parents had a deep pride in what I accomplished, and I can only thank them for all their support and encouragement. You, too, have parents, relatives, spouses, friends to thank for your current success. It’s been a long road for them too, as many times your focus was on your research. Now is the time to tell them how much you appreciate their support, their sacrifice, and their confidence in you. They share in today’s celebration!

Now let’s turn toward tomorrow. Although each of you has specialized in a particular discipline, you must remember that you are a lover of wisdom. Knowledge brings wisdom and you are the generators and guardians of new knowledge. Your training is in identifying problems and seeking solutions. You have been taught to think creatively and independently. The training you received from your mentor is one of the oldest forms of apprenticeship. If you look up apprenticeship as I did in Wikipedia, you find the following definition: “Apprenticeship is a system for training a new generation of practitioners of a trade or profession with on-the-job training and often some accompanying study.” You are a new generation of practitioners! But practitioners of what?

Let me tell you what I think. We live in a very exciting time. The world is changing at an amazing rate. Your degree and training make you an instrument of change. We also live in a time and place of unprecedented challenges, and these are huge challenges! I don’t need to list them as we are constantly reminded of them. But these are your opportunities! They are what you trained for. They are what you worked so hard for you. You are the intellectual leaders who will devise new solutions and, in the process, make the world a better place. Make no mistake, you are in control of your destiny! Dream big and take as many opportunities as you can find. You may ask, but what if I fail? Failure is a certainty, and you should not be afraid to fail.

When I arrived at Purdue many years ago, I immediately was mentored by and collaborated with one of Purdue’s most famous faculty, professor Michael Rossmann. I had the privilege of working with Michael for 27 years. I never imagined that I would work in structural biology, let alone with a giant in the field. Michael had quite the personality, and I am blessed with many stories about him. However, one observation I would like to share with you. Michael was exceptional at looking at data and results and making grand extrapolations. Many of those were amazingly wrong, but some were unbelievably correct and forward thinking that they greatly advanced the field and made worldwide impact. Those failures of Michael’s are not remembered, but his successes certainly are. Society advances by individuals making bold insights, even if they do not always seem bold at the time. I challenge you to not be afraid of failure. What you do after a failure will define you. Professor Rossmann did not look back on failure but only forward for the next opportunity to succeed.

Let me tell you a short side story. Even though Michael was a brilliant scientist, with numerous honorary doctorates, he would be the first to say when he didn’t know something. He was always curious, an important attribute for someone with a Ph.D. Most of the time he was keenly focused on his research, sometimes with interesting consequences. He had a habit of walking to work every day regardless of the weather. One day, he reached the lab after a drenching rain and found his socks were totally wet. What would be the fastest way to dry his socks? Interestingly, Michael thought a microwave should work quickly. So, he put his socks in, revved up the timer, and walked away. As soon as he was out of range, the socks caught fire! Boy, was he surprised by that result and the smoke that followed! Chalk up another experiment for Professor Rossmann! Maybe a failure, but one that has generated plenty of laughter.

I speak before you at a very stressful time for all citizens of our planet. We are in the middle (yes, make no mistake we are still in the middle) of the greatest pandemic of the last 100 years. An event that is as catastrophic as any of the modern wars. Still, this plague is caused by an agent that is far too small to see and frequently can be transmitted by seemingly healthy people. Hence the hidden danger and major threat. As someone who has studied viruses since I was a graduate student, the threat of a pandemic was always on my mind and has always been a constant threat. But right now, we are all living through this disaster! It has been difficult for everyone, and certainly for you as you tried to complete your thesis research. For me it has been a time of challenge to pivot the research of my laboratory to address our global problem and provide solutions for combatting and controlling this insidious pathogen. Each of you will be also challenged as you step forward in your career armed with a doctorate and challenged to take on the problems of our world and to improve the human condition. Remember, we share this world with people from diverse cultures, religious backgrounds and geographies, and our quest to improve the human condition cannot stop until everyone benefits from your work. We are on a fragile planet that has suffered at our hands, and it too needs to benefit from your creativity and contributions.

Your Purdue doctorate is your key to a better world. You have earned this title! Celebrate it! Carry it with pride! But most importantly you must use it! Use it boldly and without fear of failure! You are now lovers of wisdom. But be wise – the Doctor of Philosophy does not grant you wisdom. Your studies and training with your mentors have provided you the intellectual tools to generate new knowledge now and for future generations. Application of this knowledge, experience and good judgment will generate wisdom and will be your keys to solve the vexing challenges we face as you make our world a better place.

Congratulations and Hail Purdue!

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