Next week marks ten years since I graduated from MIT. It's been quite a ride. I read online that Elias Zerhouni, who was then the director of NIH, gave the Commencement speech - I have no memory of it, but it's an interesting coincidence, given the turn that my research has taken toward healthcare. I re-read the speech just now, and Zerhouni made good points: I love his "relativity principle of time and aging," which is: "the older you are, the faster time seems to go by," something that I've found to be very true but was of course incapble of understanding back in 2004. I also appreciate Zerhouni's kind words toward the MIT president at the time, Charles Vest, who was in the last year of his tenure and recently passed away.
But the key part of Zerhouni's speech is something that completely went over my head at the time: "What I will dare to say to you is that life sciences and their applications will be the defining challenge of the 21st century, bar none. And the reason is that we are changing our environment at a speed which will require us to understand life sciences to a degree we do not understand today. And let me tell you, it will require the intelligence and commitment of many classes of graduates like yours. The solution will not come from biology alone. It will come from the integration of biology and computer sciences and mathematics and physics and chemistry, and we want to encourage that to happen." Now this seems eerily prescient, but imagine saying that to a crowd of over 2,000 graduates back in 2004, many of whom - including myself - were not about to receive a degree remotely related to the biological sciences.
Zerhouni also provided some of his rules: 50% of what graduates know today will end up being wrong, many of your contributions will not come from your core discipline, try to have 50% of your friends from walks of life not related to yours and definitely have at least 50% of your friends smarter than you. Zerhouni explains: "At least half of your life contributions will be stimulated by others that are interacting with you... Now look at laboratories around the world that have been very productive. They've been productive because they have, in fact, encouraged the clustering of people from diverse backgrounds, coming from diverse horizons, with different ideas."
And my favorite quote: "Last but not least, I would say you should have big dreams, full dreams, not half dreams. You know, it's very simple. You can't put a large box in a small box. Well, you cannot put a full life in a small dream box. What you need is to have a box, a dream box, in a life that is as full as the potential you have today."
The full text of the 2004 MIT Commencement address is available here.