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Commencement Speech: What Scientists Can Start Doing Today

Text of speech given at Penn State College of Medicine's 2017 Commencement.

C. Gaines
Source: C. Gaines

Even though I defended my dissertation almost a year ago, I was finally able to participate in the spring Commencement ceremony with my classmates at Penn State College of Medicine last Sunday!

I was honored to give the graduate student address, and I wanted to share the text of my speech below. Even though it's kind of a rough time for a young scientist to start their career now, the goal of my message was to suggest something that all scientists can start doing today to, hopefully, make the world a little more receptive to what we do. Enjoy!


“Wait. What do you do again?”

Every graduate student has been asked this question at least 20 times. Per year. Usually at family holiday gatherings.

I’m very humbled to have the opportunity to address my graduate school colleagues, friends, and family this afternoon. But as I sat down to write this speech, I stared at a blank Word document for a while – which is unfortunately still a common occurrence, even after typing a 200-page dissertation. I didn’t quite know how to address so many different people with so many different graduate school experiences.

What did we all do these last few years?

So, like any good scientist, I investigated. I asked students from all programs and all stages of their career to define graduate school in three words.

“Productive.” “Fulfilling.” “Teamwork.”

Others didn’t hold back: “Intense.” “Uncertain.” “Stressful.” “Lonely.” After scraping by in tough classes, many of us take off in different directions, joining different research groups in different departments and creating new bubbles for ourselves.

Some days, those bubbles are filled with shiny new lab equipment, international conference trips, and Nature publications.

Other days, those bubbles bring us grant rejections, long work hours, time away from family, and failed experiments.

Grad school is hard because science is hard. And even though I’ve always been inspired by science, sometimes being a young scientist in today’s world does not always feel so inspiring.

We are starting our careers during a time of constant threat to cut government funding for biomedical research – easily one of the best long-term investments to the health of our citizens and productivity of our economy. Our very integrity has been challenged on issues such as vaccine safety, climate change, and genetically-modified foods. And we watch in horror, feeling powerless, as lawmakers use their opinions to sway policy away from evidence-based practices.

On top of that, a good scientist has to be good at many different tasks to be successful – critically reviewing the literature, asking smart questions, obtaining consistent grant money, managing a lab, writing, teaching, public speaking, outreach… It’s overwhelming.

So…happy graduation, everybody!

When somebody asks, “What do you do?”, I get it – it’s easy to shrug and laugh off the question. I’ve done it plenty of times.

But despite these difficulties inherent to a career in science, there’s a reason we all did…whatever we did…to get here today.

Personally, I’m driven by the moments I’ve seen patients’ eyes light up when we approach them to volunteer in our research. My lab is working on new screening and treatment options for insomnia and sleep apnea, and it excites these patients to learn that their participation in our study gets us one step closer to those goals.

Science is exhilarating. Inspiring. It makes us think. It keeps us curious. It forces us to dissect the world in a completely new way.

Sure, I still get frustrated when I see a Facebook friend endorse a silly article from, or watch a politician wield a snowball on the Senate floor to assert that climate change is a hoax.

But the next time somebody asks, “What do you do?”, take a different approach. Embrace the moment as an opportunity to describe all the ways you advocate for public health. Or your pursuit of cures for cancer and Alzheimers. And even if you’ve run that long, boring procedure that allows you to isolate DNA hundreds of times, I guarantee that you will always find someone who is chomping at the bit to learn all about it from you.

Thoughtfully explaining your work to others gives you one more chance to spread knowledge, one more chance to increase scientific literacy, and one more chance to stand up for policies that benefit our everyday lives. It gives us a voice. And who knows? – you might be the first scientist that somebody has ever talked to before.

No matter what degree we’re receiving today, or whether we’re going on to become professors, researchers, teachers, science communicators, consultants, policy analysts, or museum educators…

…I hope we’ll remember how our little corner of the world at Penn State has contributed to the health and well-being of the people around us, and that WE ARE! always empowered to branch out of this little corner and engage those folks with our message when given the opportunity.

Congratulations to the Class of 2017!

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