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Vol 40  No 5
November 1, 2007


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Oration honouring Shirley Tilghman

Friday, Oct. 19, 2007

Dr. Shirley Tilghman with Public Orator Shane O’Dea.

Those of us with experience on committees know the folly of leaving a meeting early. It generally means that in our absence our colleagues have delegated all the work to us. Shirley Tilghman was more than a little experienced when she made this mistake while serving on a presidential search committee. She left early – an irresponsible act, she was merely going to teach her class. She returned to find that she was a candidate for and eventually became president of Princeton, long-recognized as one of the finest universities in the world. Now there is more than one irony in this for she had, up until that point, turned down all offers of other senior posts with the mind-numbing excuse that she still had two children to care for.

It is in fact even more incredible that she would take the presidency when one considers that she had a major reputation as a molecular biologist who, from the beginning of her career, had made major discoveries in DNA sequencing and gene structure. She was a Fellow of the Royal Society in Britain (so considered worthy to be counted with Newton and Einstein) and a member of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States. And she loved her research. Asked why she had made this momentous change, her response was somewhat astounding: that at 54 she felt her enthusiasm and brain [weren’t] as fresh as [when she was] younger and … that it would be a great way to end her career.” Now, Chancellor, there you have a kind of realism that is not often seen in academics or, indeed, in lesser beings in what you so kindly call “the real world,” who stumble blindly from lab to lecture with scarce a thought to separate the two.

But let it be understood that this is a woman with a remarkably clear sense of what it is to be both a single mother and an internationally-renowned scientist – one who took both tasks seriously, accomplished both brilliantly and now brings that perspective to her role as a leader in the world of academe. She waited 10 years to have her children and, soon after the second was born, was effectively left with sole responsibility for them. Because of that her career decisions were based around their welfare. And it was seldom easy: at one stage she found herself driving two and a half hours a day to get her daughter to kindergarten. So, irony again, the move to Princeton was in part motivated by a desire to find an arrangement where her work life and her children’s lives were not governed by the flow of traffic on the freeway or, in her case, in the parking garage. Chancellor, I trust you will allow a minor digression here for a tight little tale. Once when she was trapped in stalled traffic in a parking garage she got out to see what was going on and noticed that drivers were ignoring an alternate exit. She took command, directing people down the accessible route and cleared the jam. That is Shirley Tilghman’s way: to seek the best solution, to find it and to guide others to it. Among those she seeks as Princeton’s president is an opportunity to develop a consciousness of “a workplace in which our roles in our families and in society are equally valued.”

And what of her research? It may have been trimmed but the publication of over a dozen papers since she assumed her new role can hardly be considered much trimming. Chancellor, it is beyond our ken for it is of mice not men. But briefly put, it involves genomic imprinting in mice in which the paternal gene remains inactive for the life of the offspring while the maternal gene is completely active – a curious case in which her research replicates her life. But not entirely because, as she so frequently tells us, it was her own father, Henry Caldwell, who taught her to think beyond gender expectations, beyond the stereotype. So, Chancellor I present to you for the degree of doctor of science, honoris causa, one who has excelled beyond all expectations, who has become a distinguished academic leader and scientist, Shirley Tilghman.

Shane O'Dea
Public orator

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