Student body president, engineering professor address graduates

August 11, 2018
Ian Green & Dr. Greg Sawyer
photographer: Lyon Duong
commencement

Student Body President Ian Green, who is pursuing a master’s degree in international business, is a second-generation Gator from Atlanta. He has been an active member of Florida Blue Key, the Black Student Union, the Florida Cicerones, the UF Board of Trustees and is a brother of Phi Delta Theta Fraternity.
Greg Sawyer is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and a member of the Academy of Distinguished Teaching Scholars at UF. A Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, Sawyer specializes in the field of tribology. His work includes new materials for ultra-low friction and wear for a number of applications ranging from space to biomedicine. Their speeches are below:

Speech from Ian Green: 

Good Morning! Today truly is a special moment. I want to first congratulate the Class of 2018 for y’alls incredible achievement. Very few have the honor to say they graduated from a Top 10 public university. Whether you graduated Summa Cum Laude, Magna Cum Laude or Thank You Laude, you all should be very proud to graduate from the University of Florida. I also want to say thank you to all the friends, parents, cousins, aunts and uncles and all other loved ones who are in attendance. Without your sacrifices, love, and support, today would not be possible.

Let’s think about that word: possible. Possible means what is able to be done; within the power or capacity of someone or something. To each one of you, the word might mean something different. It may remind you of what possible has meant for your own life. For some, possible was the chance to be the first member of your family to go to college. For others, possible was the opportunity to pursue a degree in something you’re passionate about.

Whatever the word means to you, whatever has been possible for you, possible signifies hope. Hope for a brighter future. In today’s world, it can be easy to get caught up in the negative, to lose hope and to start to think some things in life are just not possible. But if there’s one thing 2018 has taught me, impossible is just a figment of our imagination. In this year alone, we saw scientists grow vegetables in Antarctica without a day of sunlight, the Eagles finally win the Super Bowl, and Drake somehow managed to stay in his feelings. And there are still four months left in the year.

If we don’t push the boundary on what is possible, life around us becomes complacent and repetitive. Possible is what is going to move our state, our country, and our world forward. As the future leaders of our society, people are looking at you all for inspiration, gusto, and direction.

Today, we’re in the O’Dome. I don’t know if you all are basketball fans, but I can’t help but think back to last year. It’s the Sweet Sixteen in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Florida vs. Wisconsin. The Gators are losing 83-81 in overtime with only four seconds left on the shot clock. Chris Chiozza gets the ball out of bounds at the other end of the court. Defenders jump at him left and right, but Chris keeps dribbling forward. He plants his feet and shoots a floater from the three-point line. Swish. Game Over. Gators advance to the Elite 8!

You see, Class of 2018, when you leave this campus today, I want you to change what people think is possible. In other words, I want y’all to Shoot your Shot. When you’re nervous about taking that amazing job offer across the country, Shoot your shot. When you’re writing your Ph.D. dissertation on an unexplored but exciting new topic, Shoot your shot. And most certainly when you are in the position to stand up for what’s right, Shoot your shot.

There’s no guarantee you will make the shot. Sometimes in life, you’ll see your shot get blocked. Don’t let that discourage you. Don’t ever think that the risk isn’t worth it, because you miss every shot you don’t take. More importantly, as Gators, your actions inspire others to believe in themselves, to chase their dreams, to go greater.

I call on you all to embrace this challenge... together. Lean on one another, hand in hand, and rise to the occasion during times darkest hour to be the lighthouse for hope so needed around the world.

Congrats once again to the Class of 2018 and Go Gators!

 

Speech from Dr. Greg Sawyer:

Graduates!

It really is an honor and a privilege to be here with all of you today at your commencement.

You are all clearly talented, passionate, and motivated, and I am sure that there are many special people that were with you along the way.  Be kind and patient with your friends, colleagues, and families.  These relationships are complex, and it will take a lot of effort to maintain them over a lifetime.  Remember, things happen quickly, and it’s worth taking time to tell people what they mean to you.   Today is good day for that.

As an undergraduate, I took classes in engineering, science, history, art, and literature.  I fell in love with all of it!  I think that’s why I am so fond of the Renaissance.  There are a lot of heroes from that time.  I love the stories of Michelangelo.  At about your age, the young 23-year-old relatively unknown sculptor takes a project in Rome and is given a large block of pristine solid white Carrara marble, two hammers, and three chisels.  In just two years, Michelangelo sculpted the Pieta, a stunningly beautiful statue of a young Mary holding her son just after being removed from the cross.  It is elegant, moving, and proportioned so well that Michelangelo’s older contemporaries begin to attribute it other artists.  To eliminate any question, the young Michelangelo proceeds to prominently chisel his name across the entire length of the delicate diagonal sash that runs between Mary’s breast.  The Pieta launched Michelangelo’s career, but he regretted the vanity of the action, and never signed another work.

Three years later in Florence, a massive block of marble, that many sculptors deemed too flawed to sculpt, and known simply as "The Giant" was again taken by Michelangelo.  Over the next two years he worked tirelessly in secrecy, alone in an outdoor courtyard, frequently soaked in rain, with models and stone buried in water; he rarely ate and slept in his clothes -- boots on.  When finished, the colossal statue "David" was again described by his contemporaries as a miracle and the finest sculpture ever made.

Roughly a decade later he accepts the challenge of painting the Sistine Chapel.  Painting above his head on elaborate scaffolds 60 feet in the air, with paint dripping on his face and eyes, standing and contorting to reach for details and perspective.  Michelangelo described the effort as simply torture - he worked on it for 4 straight years, eventually covering the ceiling in frescoes. It is one of Michelangelo's most iconic works.

The unrelenting effort and focus of Michelangelo is legend.  The strength and speed with which he hammered and chiseled left his hands damaged, arthritic, and wracked in pain - yet, he was known to be sculpting, chiseling away into his last days.

Effort is Beautiful. Effort is powerful.

Effort is important, it is how, like Michelangelo, you will turn marble into miracles.

I really like what Ian just said, “push on the boundaries of what is possible.”  Effort, that pushing on the boundaries, is the one thing that you can actually control.  When I was your age, I was drawn to engineering.  I worked for 9-months at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, spending long nights with a small team of brilliant engineers that were hammering away, designing and building what would eventually become the first Mars Rover.  We were on our fourth iteration: We called it Rocky IV. 

The main problem I saw were its surfaces: We had almost no idea how to make this thing work in the Martian atmosphere – this complex moving mechanical assembly needed to work, it needed to move!  I left JPL, returned to Rensselaer and entered graduate school working on engineering surfaces.  At the time I thought it was the hardest problem in engineering.  I spent the next 20 years of my life in laboratories, sparing no effort to build instrumentation, train students, and collaborate with colleagues across the word.  All to control surfaces; to make things work: To allow interfaces to move, slide, support loads, or conduct heat or electricity.  I had an almost singular focus on this problem.  It was my giant block of marble that I hammered on, constantly.

I remember the morning that all of this changed for me in an instant.  I remember the entire day clearly.  I woke up with the realization that something wasn’t quite right.  I biked into my general physician’s office, setup an ultrasound, and later that day I knew.  It took a week for the definitive diagnosis of Stage IV metastatic cancer to come.  I had bunch of scans, exams, tests, and the first of 5 surgeries.  While I was asleep in recovery, the doctor told my wife.  This aggressive cancer was on the move, it was spreading.  I had to face the new reality that I was a cancer patient.

That evening, I told my sons William and Charles. They were 12 and 7 at the time.  It was the worst thing I have ever had to tell anyone; I felt sick, really sick.  The next day, I got in early to my laboratory, turned on the lights and cried.  I just stood there alone staring at a career’s worth of work and cried.  How on earth I was going to tell my students that I probably wouldn’t be here for their graduation?  That was the second hardest conversation of my life.

Within two weeks I was at the best cancer center in the country, where I met my new oncologist who promptly said “well, the 5-year survival is in the toilet -- what do you want to do?”  I couldn’t believe this was the beginning of my cancer story.

“What do I want to do?”

Work. I wanted to work. I drove back to a friend’s house that evening and went to work.  I had a project to finish, a report to write, and a lifetime of lessons to teach two young boys.  A diagnosis like this changes your perspective, quickly.  What I realized was that we are not really living for ourselves; we are living for others.  I remember my first prayer as a cancer patient: “God, let me stay here as long as the boys need me.”  Everything takes on a new urgency.

My research focus also changed. Where does cancer need an engineer?  Where are the interfaces, the surfaces, the gaps in knowledge?  There had to be a way that I could help.  That night, when everyone was asleep I downloaded my first scientific paper on cancer. I couldn’t read it.  The terminology was like Dr. Seuss!  “cMYC SMAD JNK WNT Frizzled.” I never felt dumber in my life, but I kept digging through these papers, making notes, slowly figuring things out.  I chose a treatment path that kept as many options open as possible, sparing no effort: 5 surgeries and 2 rounds of intense radiation.  I realized that immunotherapy was my only real chance.

Six months later I was patient 1 on a combination check point inhibitor trial.  I have no doubt that I am here today with you because of that trial.

In reading the cancer papers, it became clear to me that my own training and experiences brought a different perspective to the cancer problem.  Engineers work with extremely complex systems, but we like to break them down, test individual components, and subassemblies, and manage the complexity systematically, piecewise.  Whatever challenges you are faced with, don’t forget your training and your experiences – it may be just the perspective we need.

Never, ever, ever quit.  Effort is beautiful, and powerful.  There is no easy swing of the hammer.

For me, it was a discovery by a friend, colleague, and UF engineering professor, Tommy Angelini that opened the door.  After 2 years of searching, I could finally see a way to help.  Bioprinting: we can now manufacture tumors by the thousands! All human biology, all in the lab, a tool for everyone to build and tear apart cancer, figure out how it works, and eventually find its weakness and stop it.

Today, 5 years after my diagnosis, I am still here, still working.  I once again have a laboratory full of great instrumentation, all hand built by a young team of brilliant engineers and scientists -- all dedicated to cancer research.  I have the greatest group of collaborators in Medicine, Engineering, and the Sciences, all working together, focused on the same problem, Cancer.

Cancer survivors make promises – and we keep them.  I like that. I wish I did more of that before cancer.  I live 6 months at a time, and I have come to peace with this existence – I plan optimistically, but I live urgently.  Working on a cure is a tall and sometimes agonizing problem, like Michelangelo’s ceiling.  I try to bring persistent and continuous effort, urgency, and optimism to the challenge, and I look to collaborate with colleagues that can do the same – unrelenting effort and focus.  Breakthroughs almost always have elements of chance, opportunity, and ability, but there is almost always an element of prodigious effort.

Please whatever you do, whatever you are faced with, never, ever, ever quit.  Regardless of the challenge, you will absolutely find your way through it.  You’re young, but so was Michelangelo, when he started the Pieta.  And remember, you’re Gators!

Enjoy your day.

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