In December 2013, I was selected as valedictorian by the University of Melbourne’s Department of Science. They gave me three minutes to mark the occasion before a packed house of students, academics and guests at the Royal Exhibition Building.
Faced with such a massive and attentive audience, it wasn’t easy deciding what to say. In the end, I opted to celebrate our academic achievements while reminding graduates that our most important work is still ahead of us.
Deputy Chancellor, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Members of the University, fellow graduates, ladies and gentlemen.
As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a scientist. On my very first day as a zoology student, I struck off into the bush with my binoculars in hand, eager to identify as many birds as I possibly could. I tried for hours and hours in 37-degree heat. Nothing; I couldn’t identify a single bird. Then I remembered that I’m red-green colourblind: I can barely distinguish traffic lights, let alone those tiny little coloured bands that we put on birds. Eventually, with the sun blazing overhead, I ran out of water and collapsed under a tree. Welcome to science.
But here I am now. In the last two years, I’ve been attacked by swans, by cape barren geese, and by angry peer-reviewers who didn’t like my grant application. I’ve crammed desperately for exams and nearly nodded off in lectures. I’ve written a thesis – real-life science answering a question that previously had no answer. Now finally I can consider myself a scientist; we can all consider ourselves scientists.
As valedictorian, it is my absolute pleasure to stand up here and congratulate my fellow students on a job well done. But the burning question remains: where to from here? Some of the undergraduates among us may want to return next year in pursuit of this amazing hat – trust me, it’s worth it! Others, like me, will soon cast aside the training-wheels of tertiary education and strike off into what they call “the real world.”
Now, don’t be misled – it’s not all sunshine and rainbows from here. The real world is a Darwinian jungle: survival of the fittest, dog-eat-dog, publish or perish. But before you run for the hills in despair, think about why you’ve even gotten this far. Every single person here has a guardian angel, a whole suite of guardian angels: friends, family members, lecturers and supervisors who gave everything so that you could be sitting right here today having to endure my speech. Today is a celebration of their contribution as much as ours. I could thank dozens of people who helped me get this far, but really I just want to thank my parents, whose sacrifice goes back 25 years. (26 if you count the pregnancy). All their love and kindness has made me realise that the world is only as Darwinian as we make it.
Research is a serious business, but through our years at the University of Melbourne, we’re now more than ready to join the fray… and to challenge it. The future needs a certain breed of scientist, the sort who’ll bridge the gap between knowledge and policy, who’ll tackle the big questions of our time even when the answers are inconvenient. That needs to be us. So I say get out there into the real world! Stand on the shoulders of giants, look out towards a better tomorrow, and let’s see if science can’t take us there.