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Live a life with purpose and change the world

by Alan Bernstein Jun 18 / 19
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(Image credit: Lisa Sakulensky)

Dr. Alan Bernstein addressed new graduates at the University of Toronto, Western University convocation ceremonies

Remarks delivered on June 11, 2019 at the University of Toronto are transcribed below. Dr. Bernstein’s remarks on June 13, 2019 at Western University were an adaptation of this speech.

Chancellor Patton, President Gertler, Principal Keil, Provost Moran, and Dean Ratcliffe, members of the 2019 graduation class of Innis and Trinity College, proud parents and relatives, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am deeply honoured to be addressing this year’s graduating classes of both Innis and Trinity Colleges. I know how hard each of you have worked for your degree. And so my congratulations are to you, this year’s graduating class.

But my biggest congratulations are to your parents. To them, today symbolizes many things: today means one more big step in the fulfillment of their dreams for you and a giant step towards independence, (and perhaps one day paying back all those tuition fees).

What I’d like to talk about today is my walk to work. When I walk to CIFAR’s offices at the MaRS building, I pass three historic plaques, commemorating the world-changing contributions of a politician and diplomat, a computer scientist and two cancer researchers. I’d like to tell you a bit about each of them and perhaps what lessons we can learn from them.

The first plaque I pass is to Lester Pearson, former Canadian foreign minister and Prime Minister. Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his many contributions to peace, including most notably, his contribution to resolving the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956. At that time, the UN General Assembly had put forward a toothless resolution urging the British, the French, Israelis and Egyptians to stop fighting immediately.

Pearson recognized that the resolution lacked any provision for solving the problem. He proposed an international peace force, a UN Peace Force, which became instrumental in averting an international crisis, right at the height of the Cold War.

Pearson grew up north of Toronto, where his father was a Methodist minister, graduated from U of T, where he excelled in rugby, basketball and later at Oxford, in hockey. He served in WWI, including serving in the Royal Flying Corps, surviving a crash during his very first training flight!

The second plaque I pass commemorates Beatrice Worsley, one of the world’s very first female computer scientists. Worsley, who died in 1972 (the same year as Lester Pearson), was home schooled in Mexico, then went to Brown Public School and Bishop Strachan School, before entering U of T. She graduated first in her class in 1944 in Math and Physics, and then joined the Canadian Armed Forces, where she was assigned to the HMCS Conestoga and did defense research.

After the war, she went to MIT where she received her Master’s degree in computer science, returned to Canada to the National Research Council and then, like Pearson, became a lecturer at U of T in its nascent computer science department. She visited Cambridge, England at that point and stayed --- becoming the first woman anywhere to receive a PhD in Computer Science.

The third plaque I pass is the one at MaRS itself, commemorating the discovery of stem cells in the 1960s by Ernest McCulloch and Jim Till. Now, I happen to know Jim Till well, as he was my PhD supervisor and he was my bedel in today’s academic procession. Jim was born and raised on a farm north of Lloydminster, Saskatchewan. His research with McCulloch, to quote from the remarks made when they received the prestigious U.S. Lasker Prize, “… became the foundation of a vast effort that explains why bone marrow transplant works for patients with various forms of cancer, anemia and other diseases."

Now, what do Pearson, Worsley and Till have in common, other than the fact that I pass them on the way to my office?

First, they are all Canadians.
Second, their family origins were humble.
Third, they all graduated from university.
Fourth, they changed the world.
And fifth, and this is important, they changed the world, but they didn’t do it alone.

They changed the world, but they didn’t do it alone.

Pearson had the exceptionally bright minds of the Department of Foreign Affairs behind him.

Worsley trained at U of T, MIT and Cambridge, not exactly distant outposts of higher education. And Jim Till trained at Yale and then came to the Ontario Cancer Institute, arguably the best place to do biomedical research in Canada at the time, where he was surrounded by great mentors, colleagues and grad students.

Like Pearson, Worsley and Till, you are graduating at a pivotal moment in time. There are no world wars at the moment, but the planet faces a number of existential threats equal to or far greater than war. So let's talk about one of them for a moment.

To quote President Obama, “There is one issue that will define the contours of this century, more dramatically than any other and that is the urgent threat of climate change!!”

As noted in a recent editorial in Science magazine, the climate crisis requires societal transformation of a scale and rapidity that has rarely been achieved. We need a global consensus that climate change is an existential threat. Unfortunately, widening income disparities and inward-looking, nationally based special interests, are impeding a concerted, unified, and global approach to address the climate crisis.

As far as I see, there are only two approaches to solving the challenge of climate change. One approach is through public policy, accelerating the transition from carbon-based sources of energy, to renewables, especially solar and wind. The current debate about a carbon tax illustrates the public policy challenge in this country. How do we elevate the discussion so that it is about a comprehensive strategy to deal with climate change?

The other approach is through science and innovation. We need new materials that will transform how we harvest and store energy from the sun. Solar energy is by far the most abundant energy resource on earth. There’s enough solar energy hitting the Earth every hour to meet ALL of humanity's needs for an entire year. Or to put it another way, every gram of oil, coal and natural gas could be left in the ground if only we could capture one hour’s worth of solar energy each year.

Second fact: solar panels are 100x cheaper today than they were 40 years ago.

Third fact: China has installed enough solar installations to heat and light every house in Canada.

These two approaches – public policy and science and innovation – are not mutually exclusive. Indeed they are complementary and we need both if we are going to accelerate the transition to a renewable energy world.

But we need one more ingredient to add to this soup: the world needs committed young people – you! – to become engaged.

As graduates of one of Canada’s and the world’s great universities, you have a special responsibility – you are amongst the world’s elite, the very few people on the planet who have been educated in one of the world’s great institutions of higher learning.

You may be thinking it's impossible to change the world, or climate change is not your thing, or how can you do this alone. My response is: first, the world is always changing. Change is part of the air we breathe. The challenge is not change per se but rather ensuring that change will build the world that we want.

If you think about the great challenges of our time, it’s obvious that addressing these challenges requires teamwork and collaboration.

Second, humanity faces many challenges today, almost none of which were recognized as a problem just a few decades ago: climate change, renewable energy, the refugee crisis, income and opportunity inequality, food and water insecurity, antibiotic resistance, mental illness and dementia, to name just a few. Who knows what new challenges lurk around the corner? The best we can do to prepare for these unmet and undefined challenges, is to educate young people and expect that they, i.e. you, will have the requisite skills and determination to take them on.

And third, if you think about the great challenges of our time, it’s obvious that addressing these challenges requires teamwork and collaboration.

CIFAR, the organization that I lead, has a disarmingly simple vision: bring together extraordinary researchers, from diverse disciplines, countries and cultures, to collaborate to tackle questions of importance to science and to humanity. Our goal is to catalyze new ways of thinking and breakthroughs in thought that will both advance science and create a better world. CIFAR’s disarmingly simple vision has led to transformative ways of thinking about population health, early childhood development, the origins and evolution of our planet, artificial intelligence and the genetic networks that underlie health and disease. Today, CIFAR supports close to 400 Fellows, global scholars and advisors from 24 countries, working in over 120 institutions.

And so, another piece of advice: surround yourself with exceptionally bright people who think differently than you do, who are fun to work with and who make you jump out of bed every morning.

I’ve had the great privilege of choosing to live my life as a scientist – and what a time it is to be a scientist! - and to be surrounded by people who are both different and smarter than I am. In today’s academic procession, I was accompanied (as I already mentioned) by my PhD mentor, Jim Till, and by three of my former trainees, John Dick, Robert Rottapel and Mira Puri, representing the great postdoc’s and graduate students whom I have had the privilege of training.

Addressing the world’s challenges demands a fresh approach not constrained by discipline, nationality, ethnicity or politics. In his book “The Future”, Al Gore talks about the profound changes about to hit our world. But he ignores the most important driver of change. Your generation has a global perspective that the world has never seen before. You combine this global view, with energy, initiative, enthusiasm and fearlessness, and the desire to apply what you have learned, to make the world a better place.

You are why I am so optimistic for the future and you will be the most important driver of change in this century.

In your search for deciding what you want to do for the rest of your life, remember 3 things: first, you’re not deciding what you want to do for the rest of your life. You’re deciding what you want to do for the next few years.

Second, don’t aim for perfection – aim for impact. Change the world. As Leonard Cohen put it: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”.

You are amongst a privileged few. It’s time to give back. It’s time to make a difference in the world.

And third, surround yourself with colleagues, mentors and people who complement, not duplicate, the skills and personality you bring to the table.

It’s customary in these speeches to encourage graduates to follow their passion. But my advice today will be different.

As of today, you are graduating from one of the world’s top universities. You are amongst a privileged few. It’s time to give back. It’s time to make a difference in the world.

And so, my very last piece of advice is this: live a life with purpose. Change the world.

We are counting on you. And congratulations!