SMU was fortunate to have NIH Director Francis S. Collins as its 2017 Commencement Speaker. And if you only have 3 minutes to spend on this post, then use them watching this hilarious YouTube video of Dr. Collins's guitar serenade to the graduates at the end of his address.
If you have more time, you can watch his entire Commencement speech below. (This was before the latest federal budget was known, with its proposed 20% cut to the NIH budget, so don't expect any allusion to that.) It was thoughtful of Dr. Collins to acknowledge Congressman Pete Sessions in the audience and his support for biomedical research. I loved his point about SMU as a place where ideas are freely debated and civil discourse is part of the fabric of the institution - so true!
One thing I loved about the speech is that Collins (I'll drop the Dr. for the rest of this post) didn't take himself too seriously, and not just because he played the guitar at the end. He admitted, for instance, that he didn't recall what the Commencement speaker said at his own graduation from the University of Virginia in 1970 with a degree in chemistry.
I enjoyed how he talked about his meandering path to his present situation: at first he thought he was going to be an academic, then he discovered biology and went to medical school (UNC), and in 1992 he was asked to lead the Human Genome Project. This was, he was quick to add, before people thought it would work. He was appointed NIH Director by President Obama in August 2009 and expected to resign under the new President, but his resignation letter was rejected. (It is customary for people who have been appointed by the previous president to prepare their resignation letter, since the new president usually wants to make fresh selections.) This all seems a bit dry when I write about it now, but Collins was a wonderful speaker so his account of how he got to where he is now after graduation was a lot more engaging than it reads.
He had three main messages for the graduates:
- Be prepared for dramatic changes, whatever field you're in. Embrace it, and embrace that other doors are going to close.
- Your path is not always going to be smooth. Are you prepared for that? Collins's darkest hour was twenty years ago, when it turned out that a talented graduate student in his lab had been fabricating data. This became a New York Times front page story that required retractions of several scientific papers. Collins also talked about the heartbreak of seeing kids afflicted with progeria (premature aging) die, such as Sam Berns.
- Clarify your definition of success, making the difference between resume virtues and eulogy virtues. (He mentioned The Road to Character by David Brooks.) Discover your True North and don't forget to have some fun! This made a great transition for his moment at the guitar. ("Music has a way of ruining otherwise dignified experiences.")
This Commencement speech will be hard to beat. I can't wait to learn who will be the 2018 SMU Commencement speaker.