My Commencement Speech for SCGSSM 2017

I was recently honored with Alumni of the Year award from my high school alma mater, the South Carolina Governor's School for Science and Math. For this award, I was also offered some time to give a short speech at this year's commencement ceremonies.

Note that the main speaker was Mick Mulvaney, who is Trump's budget director at the Office of Management and Budget. As you might know, Mulvaney is in charge of putting together the proposed US government budget, which essentially cuts... well, pretty much everything except the military.

Given that I am a scientist myself, and am an alum of a school for science and math, and would be speaking after someone who is proposing massive cuts to the National Science Foundation, EPA, National Institutes for Health, ARPA-E, Centers for Disease Control, NASA, and more, I felt I had to make a strong case for why science really matters, and to still encourage the graduating seniors that there is hope for the future.

And yes, I did consider, shall we say, alternative approaches that probably would have gone viral on social media. Ultimately, I felt that it was the students' day, not mine, and that I wanted to speak more to them about their futures.

Mulvaney was gracious enough to meet with some of the GSSM faculty and some alumni (myself included), to hear our case for not cutting the science budget. He listened to what we had to say about science as a driver of jobs, science as national security, science as improving people's lives. But it was also pretty clear that his mind was made up. If I have time, I'll type up some notes about this.

My speech is below. I kept the bold parts, which were keywords to make it easier for me to quickly see what I wanted to say next. Also, I didn't say things exactly the way it is below, but the spirit is there.


Thank you, I'm deeply humbled by this honor.

This is the first time I've actually been back in Hartsville in 24 years, and it really brings back a lot of memories. Memories of 8AM organic chemistry. Of staying up past midnight to finish Dr. Clyde Smith's physics homework. Ike Coleman's intensity when teaching about William Faulkner. And Dr Carlanna Hendrick's wonderful lectures on US History, about sectionalism and the progressive movement. All of you instilled in me such an amazing love of learning. In fact, I bet I could still get an A in your courses right now.

To my fellow guvvies, I thought you might be interested to know that the only store that is still around, back from when I was here, is the Army Surplus store. You can read into that whatever you want.

Now, I have one main message I want to tell you. It's a simple phrase I once heard a long time ago, but it's one that I've always tried to live my life by, and I hope that it can help guide you as well: Tomorrow can be better than today, and we all have a moral obligation to make it so.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. This is actually my most interesting story about GSSM. Oddly, it happened in January 2001, 8 years after I graduated from here, and it happened far away from South Carolina. This story takes place on an airplane flight from Newark NJ to Atlanta GA. 

I was visiting my brother in New Jersey over winter break, and was on my way back to California via Atlanta to continue my graduate studies. Now, if you fly a lot, you know that most people don't really talk much with the people next to them. People are more like New Yorkers. They put up invisible shields and try their best to ignore everyone around them. At the terminal, there was this one man in his 40s who was talking to everyone around him. Later, on the flight, it turns out that he’s sitting next to me, and so we start chatting too. We quickly discover that we’re both from South Carolina. He then asked which high school I went to. I told him that I went to the Governor’s School for Science and Math. Do you know what he said? He said, “Oh, I helped write the legislation that created that.” It turns out that I was sitting next to David Beasley, the former governor of South Carolina.

Now, I think this story says a lot about what's right with America. We had leaders in South Carolina who recognized the value of math and science and also wanted a better tomorrow for the talented youth of this state. They wanted to build a better future for others who they might never directly meet. GSSM was then and continues to be an investment in the future. 

And now, class of 2017, I want to talk about your futures. What can you do to help build a better tomorrow for other people?

Many of you will be entering STEM majors, science technology engineering and math. And I have to tell you, it is an amazing time to be in STEM. Right now, we are living in the golden age of science and technology.

In biology, CRISPR/Cas9 is a new technology that is letting us directly edit DNA for just thousands of dollars. In physics, we have detected gravity waves from a pair of black holes a billion light years away. In space exploration, the world's coolest remote-controlled car is the Mars Curiosity Rover, and it is helping us understand the possibility of life on another world.

I'm a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, and let me tell you, we are truly living in revolutionary times. In Pittsburgh, where my university is located, there are already self-driving cars roaming the streets. Some of my colleagues have been developing Question-Answering systems, which helped form the basis of IBM Watson, the computer that played on Jeopardy. Other colleagues are looking at how to use 3D printers to help people with disabilities print out new kinds of hands and legs for themselves.

In my own research, I've been looking at smartphones. We are all now carrying supercomputers in our pockets and purses, and we can use these devices to understand human behavior at a scale and fidelity that we have never been able to do before in all of human history. I believe that this kind of sensing can lead to major advances in healthcare, education, safety, urban planning, and more.

So as you can see, science and technology offers many opportunities for directly helping people. Science and technology can also help us answer questions that humans have been asking for millennia: Who are we? Where did we come from? What else is out there?

But science isn't just a purely intellectual activity.  From a pragmatic standpoint, the return on investment in science is unparalleled. Millions of jobs, and entire new industries in energy, biotech, and computing have been created because of basic research and government funding in science.

Did you know that Google was created based on funding from National Science Funding in Digital Libraries? It was an investment of $4.5M, and today employs over 40000 people and pays billions in taxes. Show me a better return on investment than that.

My own company, Wombat Security Technologies, is much more modest, but still shows the value of investing in the future. In 2005 we received a grant of $1.5M from the National Science Foundation to study why people fall for fake emails and online scams, and to develop techniques to protect people from these. We spun out in 2008 and today have over a hundred employees and there are several million people around the world using our cybersecurity software.

Now, to the graduating seniors, I'm going to level with you. If you were like I was when I graduated, you're excited about moving on to the next phase of your life, but probably also deeply cynical about what you see in the world. Trust in democratic governments is declining around the world. Racism and sexism seem rampant, both on the Internet and in the real world. Terrorism and war seem endless. And not enough is being done about global warming. While the media and politicians are still debating whether global warming exists, scientists are debating how bad it’s going to be. When I was here at GSSM, I used to joke that intelligence has not yet been proven to be an evolutionary advantage, because we just might self-destruct due to our own selfishness and shortsightedness.

But, I’ve actually gotten more optimistic since then about the future, for two reasons.

First, I know that many of you will go into these fields and be at the forefront of these new areas of science and technology. You will be the scientists, the entrepreneurs, the leaders that high schoolers in the future will be reading about in their text books.

The second reason is a historical one. One big trend in history has been humans figuring out new ways of organizing people and resources to solve bigger problems. This includes things like governance of countries and large organizations, building large structures like the Eric Canal or the International Space Station, and solving global problems like banning CFCs that were leading to the hole in the earth's ozone layer.

What's interesting is that computers have led to an explosion in ways of organizing people to do big things. With Wikipedia, thousands of people around the world are helping to edit a community encyclopedia, creating an artifact of lasting value for humanity. There is an online game called FoldIt, where even middle schoolers are helping to create new kinds of catalysts to speed up chemical reactions and to decode the structure of proteins in viruses. In 2010, there was a major earthquake in Haiti. Web sites were set up to let the Haitian diaspora outside of the country translate the Creole into English, making it possible for aid workers to understand where help was most needed.

There are now more ways to find like-minded people and more ways of organizing for collective action than ever before. And some of you may invent new ways that we haven’t even yet imagined.

It will not be easy, and it may take a long time for things to happen. The women’s suffrage movement took decades before succeeding. The civil rights movement is something we are still fighting for today.

But I want to remind you that everything good starts out small. Amnesty International, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and Doctors without Borders all started from a small and committed group of individuals. Google started as a research project by two graduate students at Stanford who wanted a better way of organizing information. Wikipedia started because one person believed that we could create a free and high-quality online encyclopedia

Never forget that you have power to change things in the world.

Never forget that you can make a positive difference in people's lives with the work you do.

If there is just one thing you remember from my talk, I hope it's this: Tomorrow can be better than today, and we all have a moral obligation to make it so.

And if there are two things you remember, my last name is spelled H-O-N-G.

So in closing, to the class 2017: May your lives be filled with joy and wonder, and may you do great things with your life. You belong to a special group now. You survived GSSM. Congratulations, and thank you!


Some notes:
For the main theme, that tomorrow can be better than today, I've heard lots of variants of this, including from Sister Alice Joseph, my religion teacher when I was at Bishop England High School. This specific phrasing comes from Bill Clinton's forward from Jack Bogle's book Enough.

I'm also not kidding about the Army Surplus store, it's really still there.

The Question-Answering systems are by Eric Nyberg and colleagues. The 3D printing for disabilities is by Jen Mankoff and colleagues.


Anonymous said…
A very inspiring speech! Thank you for sharing.
Anonymous said…
Well said, Mr. H-o-n-g, and a good fit for the context.
Joanna Morse said…
Hi Jason. What a great speech! Nice job keeping it positive. I can understand the pull to not be in these polarized times. Also, nice to hear about what you're doing these days!

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