Summer 2022 Commencement Remarks

The following remarks were delivered during summer commencement on Sunday, August 7, 2022, in the Schottenstein Center.

 

Graduates, congratulations! I am so honored to share this commencement with you and your loved ones.

To all the family members here today, the friends and the faculty who taught our graduates — you have my thanks for nurturing Buckeyes of both brilliance and character — the kind of character that allows someone to complete their education, despite all of the disruptions of a pandemic.

Our graduate students in particular, faced some real challenges in doing their research, given the closure of some laboratories in the spring of 2020 and the need for physical distancing after that.

However, adversity is often a spur to creativity. We are so proud of all of you for finding the way forward.

Graduates, when I was thinking about what advice to give you as we emerge from COVID-19, I took a look at the speeches delivered at Ohio State commencements in 1920 and 1921, after the last great pandemic.

Wow. Those speakers went on for at least an hour apiece — rolling on and on — without intermission, without refreshments, without mercy.

I thought that I should pay tribute to that grand old oratorical tradition today. So, get comfortable in your seats, because this is going to take a long time.

Just kidding!

And then I thought, I am not going to give you advice from a distant past. I am going to suggest that you pay attention to the future.

Since March of 2020, we are living in an entirely new world. Not just because of the devastation wrought by COVID, but also because of the cumulative upheaval in so many realms, including the invasion of Ukraine; climate change now becoming undeniable as many parts of the world experienced unprecedented heat this summer; and a reckoning with structural racism and increasing political polarization here at home.

Even destructive changes, however, tend to reveal new opportunities — including the opportunity to fix what has gone wrong. And, I would urge our graduates to be alert to the low rumble of a tectonic shift just getting underway.

When I graduated from college in 1979, there were a lot of such rumblings that would wind up shaping our current world — some of which I sensed and took advantage of, and some of which I missed.

Moore’s law, for example — one of the most accurate technological prognostications of all time — had recently been proven right.

In 1965, Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, predicted that in the next 10 years, the number of components on a computer chip would double every year. He also observed that the cost per component would fall as the number of components rose.

Smaller, faster, cheaper, better — this exponential increase in computing power has fundamentally changed our lives.

I was well aware by the time I graduated that a personal computer revolution was brewing, spurred on by user-friendly Apple and Tandy/Radio Shack machines.

The first online discussion platforms were also beginning to appear — and the first hint of a transformation in the ways all of us live, learn, connect and communicate.

As I studied adaptive signal processing in college, it was pretty clear to me even then we would end up where we are today — with a world awash in sensors, which convert physical phenomena — such as light, temperature, chemistry, spatial features, the car coming up in your blind spot, the glucose in your blood — into electrical signals.

I was fascinated by the possibilities of optoelectronics, or using electronic devices to control light for new imaging technologies, and I built my research career there.

By the time I graduated in 1979, the connection between fossil fuel use, carbon dioxide emissions and manmade climate change was emerging into consciousness. NASA scientist James Hansen was already pioneering predictive models of the Earth’s climate to help us understand where our carbon emissions were leading us.

In a landmark 1981 paper, he and his collaborators also predicted political inaction on energy policies until “convincing observations of the global warming are in hand.” At the end of one of our ever-hotter summers, I think most of us would agree that convincing observations are in hand!

Graduates, be predictive whenever you can. Model the future using every tool at your disposal, including your imagination. Follow the breadcrumbs. Show us what to expect on our own journeys, and you will lead in any field.

I think of Lydia Smith, who receives her Master of Fine Arts degree today, as a supreme breadcrumb follower. After experiencing grief in her own life, she began travelling from burial site to burial site around the world — in Egypt, Argentina, Australia, Japan and elsewhere — taking photographs as she went, and staying with local families near those sites to observe the ways that remembrance is practiced in particular cultures. Her patient, ethnographic approach to artmaking turned into an amazing master’s thesis of 14 hand-bound books with 13,000 photographs. Lydia followed the personal into the universal, producing art that asks profound questions, such as “Who gets to be remembered?” and “What forms of tribute do we owe the people who came before us?” — art that seems particularly illuminating as we emerge from a time of a pandemic and its losses.

Lydia is not alone, however, in bringing us to new places. Many of our graduates are pointing the way for the rest of us.

I think of Nelson Glover, who today receives his doctorate in mechanical engineering. An expert in the biomechanics of running, Nelson has already taken his field to new places. Many researchers use a standard open-source model of the musculoskeletal dynamics of running. The problem is that the model assumes that runners try to conserve energy in every situation. This in no way resembles the experience of running in the real world out of doors, where we worry about slipping on icy asphalt or tripping on a trail’s loose gravel and exposed roots.

Using ingenious treadmill experiments, Nelson has devised new ways to simulate running on uneven or slippery surfaces — developing a new paradigm that has allowed him to vastly improve the current model of running — and laying the groundwork for other researchers. Every runner in the audience should now be cheering, since, thanks to Nelson’s work at Ohio State, entirely new things about preventing injuries are going to be learned.

Graduates, you are moving out into a world where, after a series of shocks, many of us are no longer confident of our footing. The old assumptions seem no longer to apply. We need you to help us develop new assumptions, so we can find our balance in uncertain terrain.

Of course, when you ask yourself, “Where am I going? Where is my field going? Where is the world going?” you will, of course, be wrong in some specifics. When I was a kid, we all expected that we’d see flying cars and sophisticated robots in every household before the 1960s were out.

However, being proven 100% accurate in hindsight is not the point of the exercise. Instead, imagining the future is a supremely interesting way to engage with the present. And, it will encourage you to put yourself in a position to influence that future for the better.

So, stay alert to what’s incipient in this highly disrupted moment. Think about where the stars are rising and where they are setting. Use the fantastic education you have gained, be creative and lead us on a path that will take us forward to a better world.

Great Class of 2022, I know that you will! We cannot wait to see what you accomplish next!