Dear Class of 2020 – CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!! I’m guessing I’m not the commencement speaker you wanted and this almost definitely isn’t the “ceremony” you wanted or that you’ve been looking forward to for years. This “commencement speech” might not seem special, but it’s heartfelt – it got me to actually record myself on camera which I hate doing but I want you to know that I truly am thinking of you all and want you to be proud of yourself. 

Whether you’re graduating from college or high school or even kindergarten, you’ve accomplished something incredible – you’ve fired so many neurons in your brain so many times that you’re able to remember things like the structures of amino acids like Alanine and you’ve developed the critical thinking skills needed to do things like draw connections about how those amino acids affect the proteins they’re in. Okay, maybe not in kindergarten… But it still (no joke) takes a LOT of work to learn those A, B, Cs that you need to write “Alanine”

And this brings up an important point – education is an endless journey. We celebrate milestones, but in a way those milestones kinda undermine the purpose of the journey and make it seem like there’s some finish line for learning. The reality is, we are constantly learning, whether we’re in a physical classroom, a virtual classroom, or just out in the “real world” where  we’re frantically Googling to try to figure out what went wrong in our experiment… 

I’m not gonna lie, not having an in-person ceremony sucks. You’ve likely been looking forward to it for years – you might have been told you didn’t have what it takes, you might have had to work multiple jobs or take classes part-time while caring for family. You might be the first person in your family to graduate. You’ve invested so much time in this learning process (and likely money which you’ll be paying back for years to come…) and the commencement ceremony was supposed to be crowning moment – the recognition of it all.

But a commencement ceremony is really just like icing on a cake – it’s really nice, but if you don’t have the icing, the cake part isn’t any less delicious! People talk about “working towards this moment for years” – but if a ceremony was what you were working towards, what you’d invested all that time, energy, and money, into, you missed the point of the education! The point is the cake! And it’s a “bottomless cake” – you can keep it and nibble on it forever. And even add more and more cake layers.  Education is about the journey, not the milestones, and if you keep your eyes narrowly focused on those milestones you’ll miss all the beautiful scenery. 

I remember being surprised when I heard that the word “commencement” means “beginning” – I’d always thought it meant “end” because you have commencement ceremonies at the “end” of some educational journey. But apparently the ceremonies are meant to celebrate the beginning of the next stage of your journey. In reality, I don’t think “end” or “beginning” are really “right” for what the ceremonies represent. Because education is one life-long journey.

The experiences you’ve had over the last few years will always be with you – when you can’t remember which way a right-handed helix goes you’ll think back to your biology teacher taking your class outside and showing us how we could use a thumbs-up to tell which shrubs had right-handed helices. And when you go to run an agarose gel you’ll set the electrodes up correctly because your hear your bio teacher’s voice in your head reminding you to “run to red!” 

And these are just the little details. The more important thing is that you’ve been learning to think critically. You’ve been learning to learn! And no matter where you look, there are always things to learn – either through official classes, through textbooks or blogs, or even just by digging around in the dirt and making some observations. 

Covid-19 might have taken away your graduation ceremony, but it can’t take away the knowledge you’ve gained. And that’s the really important part. That knowledge is what you’ve been working on for years – and in a way the pomp and circumstance of graduation ceremonies kinda distract from that fact. I know it’s totally cliche to say but knowledge is power – more than power, knowledge is hope, knowledge is joy, knowledge is knowing there’s always more to learn and wisdom is being excited and not frightened by knowing that.

Speaking of frightening, I can’t tell you what the future holds – for you or for me. I don’t even know what the next few weeks hold. And the uncertainty is unsettling, to say the least. This whole pandemic is so stressful – don’t feel bad if sometimes you just need to take some time to hang out with molecules. [pulls out Molymod kits] And remember, even if you don’t have Molymod kits, the real molecules are always there for you. So if you ever get bored, just think about the molecules underlying everything. One of my favorite things about my biochemistry education it that it lets me “think like a molecule” which is super fun – and it’s an absolute privilege to be able to help others do the same. 

Education is an immense privilege that should not be taken for granted. And, when you teach others, you actually gain a deeper understanding yourself. It’s a resource you get more of when you give it away! So, as you go out into the world (mask on, 6 feet apart), take time to teach others, and don’t be afraid to do it in a way that’s authentically you! 

Congratulations Classes of 2020! I’m rooting for you!

Now, more than ever, as we face an international (and biochemistry-related) crisis, I am incredibly grateful to be able to serve as Student Ambassador for the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (@theIUBMB) that has helped me recruit translators and share the translated versions around the world. This post was just one in my series of weekly “Bri*fings from the Bench” which, for a while, have been “Bri*fings from the Bedroom…”

If you want to learn more about all sorts of things: #365DaysOfScience All (with topics listed) 👉  

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