NEWMAN, Dianne

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University of Ottawa - Convocation Ceremony Speech - June 18, 2019

Please note: Speeches appear in the language in which they were delivered.


Bonsoir. Good evening. My mother strongly advised me to use a little humour in my speech, so I will attempt to begin in French. Please feel free to laugh at my accent; my son, who is studying French in school, certainly did.

Merci pour cette introduction très généreuse, Professeur Barriault. Président Frémont, membres du corps professoral, camarades diplômés, familles et amis, c’est un privilège d’être ici ce soir.

One of the great advantages of a scientific career is that it has no borders. I am honoured and deeply touched that I, an American who was born in Argentina to parents who were non-scientists, am being given an honorary degree from the Faculty of Science at the University of Ottawa tonight.

This is my first time speaking at a commencement ceremony, and I must admit that I struggled to pick a theme. We are at a global crossroads these days, and I hope your generation will lead us forward into a more sustainable and collectively-minded future. As someone whose research has concerned the co-evolution of life and Earth, I could use this opportunity to encourage you to be an engaged global citizen, as we enter a century where our relationship with the planet will change dramatically, bringing with it tremendous societal challenges. This, indeed, is a very important message, but I have decided not to elaborate on it tonight. Instead, I am going to share a few insights I have had since my own commencement, in the hopes that a simpler, more personal message might be more useful. The message is this:

Life will bring you unexpected things, both good and bad, and it is what you take from them and how you respond to them that define you. You do not need to know your path right now. I certainly could never have predicted mine when I was your age.

When I was an undergraduate, my father died in my junior year of college of a rare disease called amyloidosis. He was a distinguished journalist and had some measure of professional acclaim. But what burned itself into my consciousness as I watched him die peacefully, with my mother at his side in their bed, was that his professional accomplishments did not matter in the end. What mattered was to be with those he loved and to be able to tell them that he loved them. This lesson became my North Star and has guided me ever since.

Still, it’s good to make a living. Before my father died, I promised him that I would get a degree as an engineer after college. You see, I had been a German studies major as an undergraduate and he was worried about my ability to pay my rent. When I went to graduate school, I had no intention of earning a PhD. My plan was to get a master’s and work as an environmental engineer before going to law school. But along the way, I serendipitously fell in love with microbiology and bacterial genetics, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to learn a bit more about these subjects because I was having fun. I decided to get a PhD for the sake of studying something deeply, but had no ambition to be a professor, much less a professor of geobiology. Ironically, as an undergraduate, I did not take a single biology course and actively disliked my one geology class. I’ve obviously come around. The point is that my career path was entirely unpredictable. After steering in what seemed like a reasonable short-term direction, I followed my curiosity and opportunities as they arose. There was no grand plan. What I want to emphasize is that you have a lot of time to figure things out if you are motivated and work hard.

While I may have had no clue about my professional trajectory, one thing I did have was loving parents and friends who built my self-confidence. This confidence allowed me to take risks and find mentors later on who expanded my world and encouraged me to explore it. Tonight, I hope you will thank the people in your life who have done these things for you.

I have had the good fortune to find myself in the right place at the right time on different occasions, supported by people who gave me a chance and valued what I had to offer. But I did not take these opportunities for granted; I made the most of them. Being able to make a career out of exploring whatever ideas captured my imagination with highly motivated colleagues and good resources has been a privilege. Together, we have learned many things, a small number of which may even be useful one day. Regardless, it has been fulfilling.

And the part that has been most fulfilling has been the chance to accompany students into the next chapter of their lives, such as those you are embarking on tonight. To guide talented individuals through challenging times, helping them realize the power of optimism and perseverance. You are going to fail. You are going to be disillusioned. Hopefully, mostly in small ways, but sometimes in large ones. The key is to not “let the turkeys get you down,” as my father was fond of saying. Don’t let disappointments steer you off your course. And as I have learned from my husband, if you make a mistake, take responsibility for it and learn from it.

Similarly, be generous to others. Remember that everyone has a unique personal history and resist the temptation to judge them. You can better navigate the world when you accept and try to understand people’s limitations, including your own. Looking back, I realize that the moments I am most proud of in my life are the ones when things did not go well and yet I managed to hold my head high and carry on with grace. These are the moments that build your character, far more than any award or external recognition ever will.

As you look forward to the future, I hope you will embrace its unpredictability. I hope you will also look backwards into your past, appreciating the people and the experiences that have made you who you are. Though you are graduating tonight, it is liberating to realize that your identity can evolve and become stronger, thanks to how you respond to the challenges and opportunities that arise. As a corollary to the old Irish blessing, “May the road rise up to meet you and may the wind always be at your back,” I say: May you rise up when you stumble on the road, and may you press on when the wind pushes you backwards. Congratulations to all the graduates and your families on this important milestone that you have worked so hard to achieve. It is a new beginning. Bonne chance!

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