France A. Córdova - Commencement 2016

Thank you, President Destler for the warm introduction. Distinguished faculty, trustees, family and friends … and most importantly, graduates:

Congratulations! Think of all you’ve gone through to reach this moment. Hours of study … late nights … I would add all-nighters, but I’m sure that your planning and discipline made that unnecessary. Kidding! That would be a first for any university experience.

Graduation is a singular moment in your life, an occasion to be celebrated, of course, but also a time when everyone asks that well-meaning, maddening question: “What’s next?”

You are poised on an edge, about to step – or sprint or stumble – into something new. New can be intimidating. I know I wondered, when I was in your shoes, how to answer the “what’s next” question – and whether the diploma I was about to receive would actually have any bearing on the answer.

It did, eventually, though not in the way I expected.

I studied English as an undergrad—which may seem like an interruption on my path to astrophysicist, and NSF director. But it was my English skills that got me my first job in science: in a physics lab at MIT, where the lab director needed someone who could write, so he could publish one of the first articles about the new field of x-ray astronomy.

My best grade in graduate school was in a class called Electricity and Magnetism, because for our final, students were instructed to write a narrative of what we had learned. My fellow students, used to problem sets, panicked. I thought, “Write a narrative: I know how to do that!”

And in my current day job as Director of NSF, I would note that Congress and the public want clear communication about the value of the basic research we fund and the return on our investment in it. Again, my background in English comes to the rescue! And then there are speeches that I am asked to give… like this one!

I tell you this to share that all experiences you have in life are valuable, and their benefit is not necessarily something you can predict.

You never know when things will converge unexpectedly, and so it’s important to try and learn from everything, and let it strengthen you. We are made cleverer – and better – by the richness of our diverse experiences.

Your university is an exemplar of this: In 1891 the literary Rochester Athenaeum converged with the scientific Mechanics Institute to create the Rochester Institute of Technology, something richer and better for its students. And today, you are led by a president who is both a distinguished engineer and an accomplished banjo player. Now that’s a rare convergence of talents!

So much of today’s innovations result from convergence: blending ideas, approaches and technologies from disparate and diverse fields. Convergence merges strengths of different disciplines, different thinkers, to create something unique and strong. It is ultimately about taking a risk that everything connects and can illuminate the workings of nature.

Think of the AstroDance project here at RIT: a lyrical marriage of dance, visualization and astronomy to tell some of the greatest and most mysterious stories we humans know – colliding black holes and exploding supernovae causing ripples in the fabric of spacetime – and tell them in ways accessible to all.

I would have loved seeing AstroDance when I was a grad student at Caltech, working under the tutelage of Kip Thorne, one of the men responsible for the recent discovery of gravitational waves! Possibly it would have illuminated his explanations of Einstein’s equations of general relativity.

Or think of the iPhone in your pocket, a high-tech amalgam packaged into something sleek and simple, made possible by the melding of design with computer science, engineering and more. None of its technologies were invented by Apple, but Apple put them all together.

Convergences are influencing an exciting expansion beyond the traditional STEM disciplines. The grand challenges of our time – harnessing big data, ensuring access to clean water, designing and managing a technology-embedded society – these will not be solved by one disciplinary field alone.

They will require the expertise of an array of disciplines, a diverse group of passionate people. They will require us to work together, to listen and learn from each other.

The quest to discover gravitational waves, the story told through AstroDance, spanned a century and was fueled by the dedicated work of more than a thousand people across the globe. Einstein himself didn’t have all the answers. He predicted that his prediction would not be realized. But didn’t we surprise Einstein this past year when gravitational waves were finally discovered!

As you find your own answer to “what’s next,” I encourage you to be open to convergences, and the partnerships you’ll make along the way.

Graduates, as Dr. Seuss said, “Oh, the places you’ll go!”

“And when things start to happen,

don't worry. Don't stew.

Just go right along.

You'll start happening too.”

So the answer to that question, “what’s next?” It’s whatever you want it to be.

Congratulations, class of 2016! And good luck!