Graduation Speakers Embrace Perseverance, Serendipity

in BME News
May 29th, 2013

By Michael Seele

Robert S. Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT, addressed bachelor's degree recipients at Commencement Exercises. (Photos by Commencement Photos)

Robert S. Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT, addressed bachelor's degree recipients at Commencement Exercises. (Photos by Commencement Photos)

Warren Grill (BME'89), the Addy Family Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke University, spoke at the Graduate Convocation

Warren Grill (BME'89), the Addy Family Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke University, spoke at the Graduate Convocation

Speakers urged undergraduates to persevere to achieve their dreams, and told graduate students to embrace serendipity during their respective graduation exercises on May 18. Robert S. Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT, addressed bachelor’s degree recipients at Commencement Exercises in the morning; Warren Grill (BME’89), the Addy Family Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke University, spoke at the Graduate Convocation later in the day.

Two hundred and sixty-two Bachelor of Science degrees were awarded at the undergraduate Commencement, held at the Track and Tennis Center. Dean Kenneth Lutchen noted the demanding engineering curriculum and the socialization opportunities students gave up so they could do problem sets. “Without question, no one worked harder than you did,” Lutchen told the graduates. “What you have is the capacity to work hard.”

Lutchen introduced Langer, a member of the national academies, recipient of numerous top engineering awards and prizes, and the author of some 1,200 articles who has been cited more than any engineer in history. Langer encouraged the graduates to follow their passions, chase their dreams and persevere in the face of adversity. He used his own career as an example.

With an aptitude for math and chemistry, but uncertain of his career aspirations, Langer told the graduates that he became a chemical engineer and finished graduate school during the oil crisis of the 1970s. Although he received numerous job offers from oil companies, he said such work, although lucrative, “seemed boring and unimportant. I had a dream of using my engineering education to improve people’s lives.”

He said he applied for faculty positions at dozens of institutions before finding a research position at a Boston hospital, where he developed plastics that could be used to deliver medically important large molecules to patients. Although his results were promising, he was stymied by conventional wisdom.

“No one had done it before,” he said. “In fact, there was a lot of literature that said it couldn’t be done.”

All of his grant proposals were rejected and, a year after landing a faculty position at MIT, his colleagues advised him to look for another job. But he pressed on and after a couple of years, pharmaceutical manufacturers began using his ideas. With his research validated, his career flourished.

“These products are, in some cases, saving people’s lives,” he said. “This is very rewarding to me.”

Langer urged the graduates to “dream big about things you can do to improve the world. People will tell you it’s impossible. If you persist, there’s very little that isn’t possible.”

That thought was echoed by student speaker Erik Frazier (BME ’13), who told his classmates, “The next chapter of our lives is filled with a series of blank pages. Our degrees do not come with a map of the future. You can start filling in the blank pages by defining what you think engineering is. Find your passion. Find the essence of why you became an engineer.”

In the afternoon at the Fitness and Recreation Center, Grill addressed the 119 recipients of Master of Engineering, Master of Science or Doctor of Philosophy degrees at the Graduate Convocation. He noted that serendipity helped produce several important advances in science and engineering, and that a happy accident played a crucial role in his own career.

In his junior year, intent on a career in industry, Grill said he applied for a summer fellowship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, but was rejected because a professor’s recommendation hadn’t arrived. Grill went to see the professor.

“When confronted, he apologized, explaining that my request must have gotten lost in the piles of paper on his desk,” Grill said. “I asked, somewhat incredulously, ‘Well, what am I supposed to do for the summer?’ His reply changed my life forever.

“He said, ‘Again, I am sorry, but all I can do is offer you a position working in my laboratory as a summer research assistant.’ I seized the opportunity, not recognizing that the next year working in [that laboratory] would germinate my interest in an academic career.

“As you move forward in your career and life,” Grill told the graduates, “be willing to accept the accident, embrace serendipity and seize the opportunities that are created.”

Among those attending the morning Commencement were the parents of Austin Brashears, who died in a car accident while studying abroad in New Zealand last year. They traveled to campus to see their son’s classmates graduate and a moment of silence was observed in his memory.