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Address to convocation by Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn

Thank you so very much chancellor, thank you for this honour. And first and foremost warm congratulations to all you graduates. This is your day. And congratulations to your families, your professors and your friends who are sharing this day with you. I’m happy to have been honoured in this way and I sincerely thank the Memorial University Senate for selecting me for this honour.

I was thinking about the journey that brought me here. It’s been far, at least geographically, from one ocean; the southern ocean surrounding Tasmania where I was born south of Australia and far away in the southern hemisphere, all the way to here in Canada at the far eastern portion of the northern American continent. And from Tasmania if you looked south across the ocean the next big land masses I see Antarctica just as from St. John’s, if you look northwards across the ocean towards the arctic the next big land masses I see Greenland. So they’re not so different, so I feel at home.

This is a time when we think of the people who have been important in our life journeys. My mother in particular, who is no longer alive, would have been very proud and would have loved to be here. I remember how she would encourage me in my journey and she would often tell me with great delight of how when I was a five-year-old my teacher had said of me, “She will go far.” And this must have been gratifying indeed to hear for my parents who had to live with my spine-chilling habit as a young child in Australia of picking up dangerous animals and stroking them and singing to them.

Now in, in Newfoundland you just have the occasional stray polar bear but in Australia we had poisonous jelly fish on the beach and stinging ants on twigs of trees, and picking them up was behaviour I thought perfectly natural because I loved animals. And I think I was so lucky to be given the circumstances that could transmute that childhood enthusiasm for animals into a lifelong passion for doing what I love which in my case happens to be biological sciences, and I wish all of you graduates such good fortune in your area of passion.

It’s been a wonderful journey and for you graduates in all your diverse fields of study I hope your journey is greatly gratifying, too. And, as you embark on your journeys after graduation, I want to share with you a thought; it’s actually a quotation from a scientific heroine of mine, Marie Curie. Now many of you will remember she was a remarkable scientist, the discoverer of radium and natural radioactivity, and she said something I thought quite wonderful. She said, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood,” and I hope this thought might be relevant for you as graduates as we meet and celebrate today in two contexts.

First, as you embark on your future journeys and your careers. Now the challenges will sometimes seem daunting and unknown and I remember all too vividly starting in my post-doctoral research lab. Now I had come from completing my PhD doctoral degree, as many of you have done today. This, my degree was done in Fred Sangers lab in Cambridge, England, and in that lab at the time we were among the very few people who knew how to go about finding the sequence of nucleotide bases in nucleic acids that is sequencing DNA parenthetically.

What an amazingly ordinary sounding expertise that is now as we can sequence the whole human genome over and over, but what fun it was then and when it was new. But then I went to my new postdoctoral position at Yale and suddenly, because I had entered a new realm of study, I was reduced from world’s great expert in sequencing to the merest beginner after all that training and research expertise. And yet that experience -- which was a crushing blow to my ego at the time, it seemed that way -- it’s that experience that’s the very essence of our continual reaching to learn more that will likely characterize our future lives; professional and otherwise.

In a continually changing professional world we all have to keep learning afresh, and so this is the experience, the kind of experience we will have over and over in the course of our careers to become humbled novices over and over again. And we must never fear this, remembering Marie Curie’s words, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.” And the second way I think Marie Curie’s words seem relevant at this, is this; now I feel proud to be part of a great tradition of inquiry in my case via medical research, but we the world wide community certainly do not know where all the mini-advances in our knowledge and technical knowhow in so many areas as a whole are headed. This will be true for many fields of human endeavour and it can sometimes cause fear because of the unknown.

I believe that in all our societies around the world we must keep alive a commitment to a spirit of openness to inquiry and openness to new ideas and discoveries, not a fear of new ideas. And particularly this century it’s clearly very important for all of us as a global community to be making a lot of decisions. There have been new advances and these advances are already beginning to confront us with big new questions and decisions. Just a couple of examples; for example, from biological research alone, something my research touches on, what if we can control diseases and perhaps aspects of human aging so we can live much longer productive lives, and more broadly what will we do to sustain the environment. These are just two of the many possibilities and challenges that are arising. We will need to choose wisely.

So to understand new ideas and their implications means we mustn’t fear new ideas. So you as graduates, you can use your education you’ve received at Memorial University to contribute to your participation in these future questions and, I’d add, don’t forget to use your heart, too. Use your education to benefit as many people as possible. So graduates in all your diverse fields of study, don’t fear the new, try to understand it. I wish you all good fortune in finding and continuing in what you love to do and the chance to contribute to the world.

As you embark I wish you the best in your journeys.