Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, urged members of MIT's Class of 2004 to participate in solving public health and environmental problems that developed following the "third Big Bang--the Big Bang of knowledge" in his address at MIT's 138th Commencement on Killian Court.
"Life sciences and their applications will be the defining challenge of the 21st century, bar none," he said in his 20-minute speech to the 2,157 graduates. "The reason is that we are changing our environment at a speed which will require us to understand life sciences to a degree we do not understand today. And let me tell you, it will require the intelligence and commitment of many classes of graduates like yours."
Zerhouni traced three "Big Bangs"--the birth of the universe, the beginning of life on Earth and the appearance about 100,000 years ago of the 10,000 human beings from whom the species is descended--to underscore his point that the challenges facing scientists arise from the impact of human intelligence.
"We've been able to change our environment at a velocity that is much faster than what we can adapt to ourselves through our natural mechanisms of natural evolution," Zerhouni said.
He illustrated his point by noting that obesity is an emerging public health threat and is now the second-leading cause of premature morbidity and mortality. Thanks to human knowledge, the food scarcity that was typical throughout human history has been erased in some areas within the past 50 years. But human genes haven't adapted to the newly abundant supply.
"There is a real race going on between our ability to understand how we respond to our environment biologically and our ability to change that environment, and with consequences that we may not always predict," he said.
Zerhouni paused near the beginning of his speech to lead a round of applause for the graduates' families and to introduce his second theme: the necessity of connections among people and collaboration across disciplines in science and other fields.
This aspect of his address arose, he said, from his own experience. "I came from Algeria with $300 in my pocket, a new wife, and no friends or family. I learned you can't make a contribution unless you're connected to others and you're able to connect to others," he said.
Speaking more broadly of innovations, Zerhouni added, "Rarely does the spark of genius appear in those who are completely isolated." For example, Watson and Crick, a zoologist and a physicist, together created the field of molecular biology, he said. The process of discovery and scientific advancement "is admittedly social, it is not an individual process, it is a process you have to participate in."
His own career and life experience could be expressed in a few "50-50 Rules of Life," Zerhouni said.
"First, what you know today is 50 percent wrong and 50 percent right. The challenge for you now is to figure out what part is right and what part is wrong," he said. Secondly, he said, "be aware that many of your contributions will not come from your core discipline ... Read 50 percent of what you read in the area that you're interested in, but make sure that 50 percent of what you read is unrelated to what you have to do."
Finally, Zerhouni said, don't be afraid to look foolish, and have high aspirations. "You can't put a large box in a small box. Well, you cannot put a full life in a small dream box. What you need is to have a box, a dream box, in a life that is as full as the potential you have today," he said.
Zerhouni gave specific acknowledgement to President Charles M. Vest, who is stepping down, describing him as "one of the most influential thought leaders in higher education. He has this rare combination that you don't find a lot in life that combines vision and flawless execution."
R. Erich Caulfield, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and president of the Graduate Student Council, and Maria Hidalgo, president of the Class of 2004, also spoke.
Caulfield saluted the graduate student body with a spoken anthem of praise. Greeting them as an "august and awe-inspiring assembly of the academically accomplished," he noted the group had flexed their "magnificent mental muscles, made mighty by the methodical mastery of mathematically menacing" and should now enjoy a "more excellent view of a future that is pregnant with a plentitude of possibilities." He also offered congratulations in numerous languages (without the alliterative flourishes).
Hidalgo announced the senior class gift, the HUGE Fund (Helping Undergraduates Gain Excellence) a $31,000 resource to support undergraduate projects such as UROP projects or theses. She also saluted Vest. "You, too, will soon be a graduate," she said, to widespread applause.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 9, 2004 (download PDF).