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Commencement address by Noubar Afeyan PhD ’87

“Welcome long odds,” the biotechnology leader urged the Class of 2024. “Embrace uncertainty, and lead with imagination.”
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Noubar Afeyan stands at the podium.
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Caption: The inventor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist has co-founded and developed over 70 life-science and technology startups.
Credits: Photo: Gretchen Ertl

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Noubar Afeyan stands at the podium.
The inventor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist has co-founded and developed over 70 life-science and technology startups.
Photo: Gretchen Ertl

Below is the text of MIT alumnus Noubar Afeyan's Commencement remarks, as prepared for delivery on May 30.

Thank you, Mark, for that generous but somewhat embarrassing introduction.

President Kornbluth, trustees and faculty, students and families, guests, and members of this remarkable community of scholars and solvers: It’s a special honor to be with you today.

Graduates, I once sat where you now sit, brimming with excitement and the sense of accomplishment that comes with a hard-won MIT diploma. Congratulations!

Families, as the father of two MIT alums, I know first-hand the pride and emotion you feel today.

Faculty members, as a senior lecturer here for 16 years, I saw up close how well you prepare these graduates for what lies ahead. And fellow trustees, it is a great privilege to serve alongside you.

I spent my childhood in Beirut, Lebanon. Three generations of my proud Armenian family shared an apartment on the ninth floor of our building. The window in the bedroom I shared with my great aunt looked out over the red-tiled roofs of Roman, Ottoman, and Byzantine buildings and beyond to the Mediterranean Sea.

When civil war erupted in 1975 and the government imposed strict curfews, the state broadcaster often shifted from airing three hours of TV a day to offering round-the-clock programming of mostly American television shows, a diversion for my brothers and me when we were forced to stay inside.

One show in particular had me captivated. Just hearing the theme song would set my heart racing — perhaps you know it, too.

That’s right… “Mission Impossible”!

Even if you never saw the TV show, you likely know the movies with Tom Cruise as agent Ethan Hunt.

The encoded self-destructing message to the agent always began the same way: “Your mission, should you choose to accept it …”

No matter how long the odds, or how great the risk, the agents always took the assignment.

In the fifty years since, I have been consistently drawn to impossible missions, and today I hope to convince each and every one of you that you should be too.

Class of 2024, one incredibly challenging mission is already under your belt: You were given the assignment to begin your studies at MIT … without being at MIT. Going to college, without going to college, was not a mission you’d signed up for, but it is what you got. A handful of you did move to campus, but even for you, masking, testing, social distancing, and virtual classes meant orienting to a foreign land. You even learned a new language, as terms like “Q-week” and “SCUFFY” entered your MIT lexicon. No one knew what would happen next, or when it would all end.

And yet, you found ways to thrive. You dove into your coursework and started to build mostly virtual friendships. In the words of your classmate Amber Velez, who rented a Cambridge apartment with three MIT roommates, you “patched together a little lifeboat in this vast sea of students, spread out over the world.”

Earlier that year, just up the road in Kendall Square, my colleagues and I at Moderna had received another mission that seemed impossible: Develop a safe and effective vaccine that could save lives, restart the economy, and do so in less than a year. Oh, and while you are at it, get a billion doses manufactured, distributed, and into the arms of people around the world.

It was clear that if we accepted this challenge, it would take everything we had. We would have to slow 20 ongoing drug-development programs and focus on solving COVID.

We embraced the mission!

Just 48 hours after Moderna obtained the sequence for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, we deployed our mRNA technology to produce a potent vaccine. Less than two months later, we enrolled our first patient in a clinical trial, and on November 16th, the vaccine was determined to be 94.5% effective against Covid-19. By some estimates, Moderna’s vaccine saved over 2 million lives during the pandemic.

How did we do it? That’s another speech for another day.

But what I do want to talk about is what it takes to accept your own impossible missions and why you, as graduates of MIT, are uniquely prepared to do so.

Uniquely prepared – and also obligated.

At a time when the world is beset by crises, your mission is nothing less than to salvage what seems lost, reverse what seems inevitable, and save the planet.

And just like the agents in the movies, you need to accept the mission – even if it seems impossible. I know the odds don’t appear to be in your favor. But this age of polycrisis is also a moment of poly-opportunity, fueled by artificial intelligence, machine learning, quantum computing, and other modern technologies that are changing the world faster than people believe is possible.

Now, you are uniquely equipped to turn science fiction into science reality.

With the right mindsets, “Mission Impossible” can become “Mission Improbable” – as you overcome obstacles and seemingly long odds by imagining and innovating your way to novel solutions.

So: How do you go about that? How do you become the agents the world needs you to be?

You already have a head start, quite a significant one. You graduate today from MIT, and that says volumes about your knowledge, talent, vision, passion, and perseverance – all essential attributes of the elite 21st century agent. Oh, and I forgot to mention our relaxed uncompetitive nature, outstanding social skills, and the overall coolness that characterizes us MIT grads.

More seriously, you are trained in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology – fields that, when properly harnessed and supported, can be deployed against almost any seemingly impossible challenge.

You may not realize it yet, but your MIT education has given you a superpower – like X-ray vision – that lets you see through the illusion of impossibility and surface the blueprints for solutions.

And as of today, you even have a secret decoder ring, better known as the Brass Rat!

MIT’s history underscores these special powers. The telephone, digital circuits, radar, email, Internet, the Human Genome Project, controlled drug delivery, magnetic confinement fusion energy, artificial intelligence and all it is enabling – these and many more breakthroughs emerged from the work of extraordinary change agents tied to MIT.

Now let me ask you a question: Aside from MIT, what do such agents have in common? What equips them to accomplish seemingly impossible missions?

I’d argue that they do three things that make big leaps possible. They imagine, they innovate, and they immigrate.

And now, it’s your turn.

Start by unleashing your imagination.

People often see imagination as the exclusive province of the arts: of movie making, literature, painting.

I think that’s nonsense. Imagination, to my mind, is the foundational building block of breakthrough science.

I am not making an argument against reason. Reason has a role to play, but in accomplishing impossible missions, it’s the servant, not the master. You can’t expect reasoning to do the work of imagination. At its best, scientific research is a profoundly creative endeavor.

You have mastered proofs, and problem sets, and design projects, but in the words of mathematician and author Lewis Carroll: “Imagination is the only weapon in the war with reality.”

To the great Irish writer George Bernard Shaw, its role is even more fundamental. As he put it:

“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.”

It is also your turn to innovate. Think of innovation as imagination in action. Or, perhaps, mens et manus, or “mind and hand,” but I hear that line is taken.

MIT did not prepare you to shy away from the unknown, quite the contrary. You are now prepared to leap for the stars, sometimes quite literally — just ask the more than 40 NASA astronauts with MIT degrees.

Leaps often involve unreasonable or even seemingly crazy ideas. Ordinary innovations are often judged by how reasonable the idea is as an extension of what already exists, and how reasonable the person proposing it is.

But ask yourself: Why do we expect extraordinary results from reasonable people doing reasonable things?

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I am utterly unreasonable, and an eternal optimist. As a lifelong entrepreneur and innovator, I have to be.

But I’ve always practiced a special kind of optimism – I call it paranoid optimism. This means toggling back and forth between extreme optimism and deep-seated doubt.

The kind of paranoid optimism needed to make scientific or technological leaps often starts with an act of faith. By that, I mean belief without facts — the very definition of faith.

I know faith is generally associated with religion. But interestingly, in my experience, pioneering science also starts with faith. You take leaps of faith and then you do experiments.

On rare occasions, the experiments work, converting your leap of faith into scientific reality.

What a thrill when that happens!

On your innovation journey, beyond optimism and faith, you will also need the courage of your convictions. Make no mistake, you leave MIT as special agents in demand. As you consider your many options, I urge you to think hard about what legacy you want to leave — and to do this periodically throughout your life.

Not every mission you are qualified for is a mission worth accepting. You are far more than a technologist – you are a moral actor. The choice to maximize solely for profits and power will in the end leave you hollow.

To forget this is to fail the world — and ultimately to fail yourself.

I know many of you here – and some in the Class of 2024 not with us here today — are deeply troubled by the conflicts and tragedies we are witnessing. As an Armenian, descended from genocide survivors, and co-founder of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, I feel deeply the wounds of these conflicts.

I wish I had answers for all of us, but of course, I don’t.

But I do know this: having conviction should not be confused with having all the answers. Over my many years engaged in entrepreneurship and humanitarian philanthropy, I have learned that there is enormous benefit in questioning what you think you know, listening to people who think differently, and seeking common ground.

As you grapple with today’s hard choices — and the many that lie ahead — rely again on your imagination. Imagine the world you want to create and work backwards from there. Be open to the many paths that could carry you towards this goal and let the journey inform which ones will succeed.

I’ve urged you to imagine, and to innovate. The last thing I want to leave you with is the need to immigrate.

I’ll say more about what I mean by “immigrate” in a second, but first I want to give a shout-out to others who, like me, have left their homelands.

For those of you who have emigrated here from far away, or whose parents did, or whose grandparents did, please stand.

I applaud you.

It may often feel like a disadvantage, but you will soon learn it is quite the opposite.

When I first arrived at MIT, I worried I did not belong here: I spoke with an accent, my pastime wasn’t hockey or lacrosse, but Armenian folk dance.

Then one afternoon, late in my first year here, I was walking down the infinite corridor when a poster caught my eye. Staring back from the poster was a Native American chief in full headdress, eyes defiant, finger pointed, seemingly right at me. The poster read: "Who Are You Calling Immigrant, Pilgrim??"

I can’t tell you what an impact that had on me. Aside from Native Americans, we all, at some point, come from somewhere else. It helped me realize I belonged here — at MIT, in the United States. And graduates, families, YOU. DO. TOO.

But here’s the really interesting thing I’ve learned over the years: You don’t need to be from elsewhere to immigrate.

If the immigrant experience can be described as leaving familiar circumstances and being dropped into unknown territory, I would argue that every one of you also arrived at MIT as an immigrant, no matter where you grew up.

And as MIT immigrants, you are all at an advantage when it comes to impossible missions. You’ve left your comfort zone, you’ve entered unchartered territory, you’ve foregone the safety of the familiar. Yet, you persist and survive. You figure out how to accomplish your mission.

Like elite agents, immigrants are the ultimate innovators, equipped to navigate obstacles, to never say never. In fact, I often describe innovation as intellectual immigration. Just like those of us who emigrate from other countries, innovators pioneer new environments seeking a better future — not just for themselves but also for the larger world. So, whether you grew up in Cambodia, or in California, or right here in Cambridge, you can immigrate – and you need to keep immigrating. You need to leave your comfort zone, to think in new ways, to acclimate to the unfamiliar and embrace uncertainty.

If you imagine, innovate, and immigrate, you are destined to a life of uncertainty. Being surrounded by uncertainty can be unnerving, but it’s where you need to be. This is where the treasure lies. It’s Ground Zero for breakthroughs.

Don’t conflate uncertainty and risk — or think of it as extreme risk. Uncertainty isn’t high risk; it’s unknown risk. It is, in essence, opportunity.

I began with a TV show; I’ll end with a movie — the most recent Mission Impossible film released just last summer.

The film is a daunting reminder of all that your generation is up against: complicated geopolitics, climate threats and technological pressures, and AI tools that will both simplify and complicate our world.

But graduates, as I look at all of you, I see a large team of agents who are entirely capable of completing your missions. I see agents for good, agents for change.

MIT has prepared you to tackle impossible missions.

To harness the future and bend it toward the light.

My wish for you, my fervent hope, is that you not only choose to accept impossible missions, you embrace them. Welcome long odds. Embrace uncertainty, and lead with imagination.

Approach the unknown with the courage, the confidence, and the curiosity of an immigrant. With paranoia and optimism.

And always remember the strength of working in teams. Show the world why Mission-Impossible-Team inevitably shorthands to M – I – T.

Graduates, set forth on your impossible missions. Accept them. Embrace them. The world needs you, and it’s your turn to star in the action-adventure called your life.

Thank you.

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