Small steps, eureka moments and chocolate-covered peanuts

UF President Kent Fuchs’ speech for 2021 and 2020 doctoral graduates

Doctoral graduates,

It’s wonderful to have you back with us on campus to celebrate with you … physically! … in person! … in all three dimensions! … here in Exactech Arena.

Every Gator graduate earns their coveted diploma after completing the rigorous academic demands of their University of Florida degree. But, Class of 2020, you did even more.

Over a hundred years ago the Class of 1918-19 overcame the influenza pandemic. But UF was only about two decades old and we did not yet have doctoral programs. So, you’re the first class of UF doctorates to receive their degrees during a pandemic. Congratulations!

You graduated after years of hard work, with a special push at the very end to complete and defend your dissertations, submit your research for publication, and apply and interview for positions.

I remember the last six months of my PhD in Electrical Engineering at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. I was doing all those other things. At the same time, I had returned to divinity school in Chicago, where I took 21 course hours to finish a Master of Divinity degree I had begun 7 years previously. I was so exhausted I think I slept during my PhD commencement!

As you no doubt know well, it’s important to maintain energy and enthusiasm in your work. Yet maintaining stamina over years of scholarship, research or in professional practice can be hard. The work many seem unending and rarely reveals the impact it could someday have.

This brings me to my message to you: As UF doctoral graduates, I know that, sometimes, you may feel that the work to which you are dedicating your lives advances too slowly, or is too specialized, to make a difference.

This is understandable but contrary to fact.

As you continue your careers at universities, in industry or in professions in the private sector, I urge you to have faith that your work is important. Have faith that it may bring positive change not only to your field but to the larger community and indeed, the wider world.

Sometimes, you may not see the impact your work is making. But other times -- likely after years in the lab, or the library, or the field, or in the hospital, thinktank, or halls of government – you will amazed by its impact and influence.

In my own career, I first became very excited about computer engineering as a sophomore at Duke University when I took a class in artificial intelligence. This was in 1974, a period of great excitement about the field of AI.

Although I ultimately pursued another area in my Ph.D., I followed the developments in AI closely, and by the time I earned my doctorate in 1985, the excitement had begun to cool.

The early progress in AI had hit a lot of dead ends. The path ahead was unclear, and funding began to dry up. Faculty moved on to other areas and advised their students to do the same.

More than three decades later, everything has changed. Artificial intelligence underpins our lives, from computer-assisted driving … to medical imaging and diagnosis … to fast financial transactions … to social media. Here at UF, we have launched a university wide initiative in AI that includes every college and will impact curriculum and research across the university.

The scientists and engineers who were toiling away on AI when I started out would be astonished by the progress of AI and its infusion in modern society. They literally worked on AI for many decades before it finally took flight.

We have an even more striking example of this same phenomenon in the COVID vaccines.

Historically it took many years to develop vaccines, yet the global scientific community produced several different COVID vaccines in less than a year. This historic accomplishment was made possible in great measure by a scientist who spent decades working in obscurity named Kati Kariko.

Dr. Kariko, a native of Hungary, dedicated her career to messenger RNA or mRNA, which is the genetic script that carries DNA instructions to cells to make proteins.

According to a wonderful profile by Gina Kolata in The New York Times, Dr. Kariko believed she could use mRNA to instruct cells to make medicines, including vaccines. However, her ideas were seen as unorthodox and unpromising. She struggled for years to find grant funding and to stay employed, moving from one low-level position to another. According to The Times, she never made a salary of more than $60,000 per year.

Still, Dr. Kariko did manage to find some senior colleagues who gave her the opportunity to pursue her ideas at both Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania. While she and those colleagues made progress, they were rarely rewarded with grants, and never with prizes. Leading scientific publications rejected their papers. They were told they should move on to more promising possibilities.

When Dr. Kariko and Dr. Drew Weissman at Penn proved the concept of using mRNA to instruct cells to make a part of the virus, the silence in the scientific and entrepreneurial communities was deafening.

Dr. Weissman said, quote, “We talked to pharmaceutical companies and venture capitalists. No one cared. We were screaming a lot, but no one would listen.”

Finally, and after many years of being ignored or sidelined, the biotech company Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech partnership began funding the mRNA research. That funding led to clinical trials for mRNA vaccines for flu and Zika viruses.

Then COVID happened.

Chinese scientists posted the genetic sequence of the virus in January 2020. Within 48 hours, based on Dr. Kariko’s and her colleagues’ decades of work, BioNTech and Moderna had both designed mRNA vaccines to fight it.

Many other scientists contributed solutions to further advancing the vaccines. Testing began by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech and by the National Institutes of Health. On November 8, 2020 – less than one year after the Chinese scientists sequenced the COVID virus – the first results came in, showing that the mRNA conferred immunity to COVID.

“To celebrate,” The Times said, “[Dr. Kariko] ate an entire box of Goobers chocolate-covered peanuts. By herself.”

Graduates, your own research, scholarship, clinical or professional endeavors may sometimes seem to advance slowly, or even go backwards. You may not always win the most prestigious grants, the most valued clients or the most sought-after promotions. Others will doubt you and they may question your work.

But if this happens, I want you to remember Dr. Kariko and the COVID vaccines that you yourselves may have chosen for protection, as have I.

Serious and consequential scholarship usually advances in small and incremental steps rather than eureka moments. Serious and consequential professional careers take time to get off the ground and begin to soar. Making a difference is a slow, sometimes painful process and the impact you are making may not be visible to you, whatever your work.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines may have been developed in less than a year, but they rested on decades of small and incremental steps by Dr. Kariko. I want you to remember how she kept going despite skepticism, resistance and seemingly slow progress, and no financial or academic rewards.

Whether you continue with research or move into careers in industry or the public sector, I urge you to have the courage to stay your course. If your efforts are solid in the humanities, the social sciences, the arts, the physical sciences, the life sciences, engineering or any other area … and if you maintain your energy and enthusiasm in pursuing it … you may well be amazed by the sweeping impact of your work.

You, too, may someday eat an entire box of Goobers. By yourself.

Graduates, I am so proud of your achievement in having earned your University of Florida doctoral degrees. I wish you well in embracing your careers of incremental steps that lead to giant leaps.

Although you have received the highest degree offered, I want you to know that you are not finished with the University of Florida.  As alumni, you are members of the University of Florida family. 

I pray that blessings will be abundant in your personal and professional lives and that the University of Florida will always be your home. We will always cheer for you. 

I leave you with an old Irish blessing that expresses my personal affection for each one of you.

May the sun shine gently on your face.

May the rain fall soft upon your fields.

May the wind be at your back.

May the road rise to meet you.

And may the Lord hold you in the hollow of his hand.

Until we meet again.

Doctors, congratulations! It is great to be a Florida Gator!

UF News May 6, 2021