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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
University of Alabama
Commencement Celebration
Tuscaloosa, Alabama

December 17, 2001

Thank you for such a generous introduction and for the invitation to speak at today's ceremonies.

President Sorensen, Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, students, families and distinguished guests, I'm honored to deliver the commencement address here at the University of Alabama, one of our nation's most respected institutions of higher learning.

Since I am the only thing standing between the graduates receiving their diplomas and enjoying an afternoon and evening of celebrations (both equally important), I promise to follow the golden rule of a commencement talk: be brief.

To the graduates of 2001, congratulations on reaching this important moment in your lives. This is a milestone for you and a special time for your families and friends. Each in their own way contributed to your success today. This is a fine holiday gift for all of you.

In keeping with the festive spirit, it is nice to note that on this day in 1843, Charles Dickens's masterpiece, "A Christmas Carol" was published. You know, the story of the miserly old man, Mr. Scrooge, who was transformed to a charitable gentleman desiring to improve the well being of his community.

Dickens's story became an instant sensation, and its moral and ideal have echoed down through the decades.

Just as that story has endured, words from another Dickens work, "A Tale of Two Cities," also reverberate for us. They have been quoted often these days because they capture the current sentiments of our nation. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Our country has reached the height of productivity and capability, while at the same time it has been stunned and stricken by the destruction and loss of life within our own borders.

September 11 has given us pause to ponder what lies ahead for the future.

None of us can ever be certain of the future, but I assure you, part of the answer starts here with you.

Leaving the University of Alabama today does not in any way signal the completion of your education. Your diplomas are just the beginning of a life-long journey in learning and in changing the world to become a better place.

Your knowledge offers you unlimited possibilities to discover new paths and to lead future generations to even greater heights.

One way to make that happen is by increasing your knowledge and understanding of people of different races and ethnic groups, of various cultures, of other countries, and even by learning a foreign language.

Over the last century, American culture, art, democracy, and science have had a major impact on other nations. Our films, music, jazz, dance, fast food, and blue jeans have reached every corner of the globe.

American culture and ideals, unmistakably, have helped to sow seeds of democracy in many nations. And most recently, the reaches of the American-created Internet seem limitless. From Internet cafes all over the world, people can exchange greetings and information.

The revolution in information technologies has become a force to enrich and transform societies, ours included. You have grown up in a time that has offered the extraordinary opportunity of having a window to the wonderful diversity of ideas and cultures around the globe. All nations, cultures, and people have much to offer each other.

In our nation, science and engineering have been a significant force shaping our direction and progress. For the past five decades, we have moved steadily toward a society defined by the insights of new knowledge.

That transforming force has brought miraculous change with things that seem ordinary to all of you. But I remember a time before penicillin was readily and widely available, before a television set was in every home, and before the ubiquitous "post it note."

I'm not trying to impress you with my age but rather with the age in which you are living. It means you have access to unimaginable knowledge and resources.

You have sophisticated tools and technologies, and lightning fast communication to help you change the world. Through your ingenuity, compassion, and commitment, you can help solve the world's problems.

And to change the world, you must have knowledge of the world.

There is an African proverb that says, "the lack of knowledge is darker than the night."

There is still a lot of ignorance in the world. There are still many things to change for the better. And, simple solutions can be powerful. You will not want for challenges, though sometimes you will struggle for solutions.

Whatever you do, don't give up.

You will find that sometimes you learn more from your mistakes than you would have, had you gotten it right on the first try. Just remember that you are launching your careers in a world that few could have imagined 100 years ago, at the dawn of the last century.

As the 21st century begins, some of you will be entering careers in newly emerging fields - areas that had no names five or ten years ago, but have the potential to transform every facet of life on Earth. I call them Nano, Bio, Info, Cogno technology. That's a mouthful! Let me explain.

While, I've already mentioned the impact of information technology (Info) and how it reduced the entire world to a single village, other advances augur equal potential for change.

The sequencing of the human genome opens up a whole new world of biomedical research and potential new miracles of diagnostics, prevention, and treatment. (Cures for infectious diseases will be read from the genetic blueprint of the causal bacterium or virus.)

The discoveries of biotechnology will give us better crops, as well as an understanding of the complexity and interrelatedness of life on earth.

Nanotechnology, although still in its infancy, will fuel a 21st century industrial revolution through low-cost, molecular-level manufacturing of valuable consumer products, such as stronger-than-steel plastics and miracle pharmaceuticals.

We can expect other great things from nanotechnology, like anti-microbial lotions to combat anthrax spores. Nanotechnology offers us the possibility to detect traces of explosives in both water and air.

For centuries, the human intellect has labored to create, invent, and assemble a world more advanced and enlightened than previous generations. We have always expected and received great things from the human mind.

An increased understanding of our own cognitive processes should allow your generation to shape an even better and more secure world for all people. The human mind (when put to good use) can solve any challenge on Earth.

And your education here at the University of Alabama has prepared you to meet the new challenges, whatever will be. As graduates, you are the beneficiaries of a fine university education in the finest university system in the world.

Your efforts from this point on will determine what type of world the generations that follow you will inherit.

You now have the power to shape and improve this global community.

So gain as much knowledge as you can, not only with regard to your profession, but also about other people, other places and other ideas across all continents. Maintain America's legacy as a great and diverse nation, and help others to secure the freedoms we take for granted.

I am comforted in knowing that your generation will soon abbreviate Dickens's quote, so that it simply reads, ".it was the best of times."

I just have two words for you as you go out on your own: Beat Auburn!



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