Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation
"Commencement: It's Only the Beginning"
Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy
May 31, 2008
Chairman Nuñes, President McGee, members of the board, distinguished faculty ... exhausted graduates ... relieved parents ... and supportive relatives and friends. I am honored to speak at this special event. I am especially honored to be invited by my distinguished colleague, Leon Lederman, your special guiding spirit.
To the graduates, I say, congratulations on this important achievement in your life. I realize that some of you probably thought this day would never come.
You have endured endless hours of writing, calculating, experimenting, performing community service -- and probably hyperventilating. That's behind you. And I've got good news about what's ahead.
Your most rewarding years of learning have just begun -- the years when your ideas are unleashed, when you are free to explore, create, discover, and invent. That's why this day is called "Commencement," rather than "Finale."
This Academy has taught you the adventure of learning, and given you a jump start toward an exciting career. What's next?
I know your first thoughts will be getting out of those hot robes and heading for something cold and wet.
Your next big challenge will be to select a university program that will open your mind to the deepest mysteries of nature.
Whatever your educational path, I am confident you will excel. And someday in the near future, you will surely ask yourself: What can I do that would be fun and rewarding?
For example, you could find yourself working in a laboratory, possibly like the one you see on the TV CSI series ... with a few exceptions....
Your lab will not be full of beautiful people in expensive clothing. In the real world, it will take longer than 45 minutes to reach a conclusion. And the lab equipment will not instantaneously spit out a detailed analysis, such as a DNA scan.
On the plus side, you're not likely to be targeted by serial killers because of your results.
I predict that some of you will become top researchers, or educators, or both. Pursuing a career in research or teaching doesn’t mean you have to lock yourself away from the rest of the world, in a laboratory or classroom. There are plenty of opportunities for fun.
For example, a mathematician at CalTech is the mathematics advisor for the TV show "Numb3rs." Another advisor for the program is the NSF Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences.
And there is a wealth of computer science research behind the special effects in movies -- from the holograms in "Lord of the Rings" to "Iron Man."
Perhaps you've fantasized about inventing a video game. The creation of "Halo" began with two guys in a basement with a Mac. They were so successful that Bill Gates bought them out. As a result, they discovered the shortest path to a BMW.
The same 3-D technology used in video games is used by archeologists, who mount imagers on helicopters to search for footpaths used by ancient villagers.
Maybe you'll be a social or behavioral scientist. These branches of science will be essential for balancing a world of technology with all that is good and true in mankind.
Perhaps you will be the physicist who will unify all of the forces of nature.
Our physical infrastructure is equally in need of your talent. We need engineers to build bridges that stand the test of time, and buildings that will conserve energy and withstand earthquakes.
Our nation needs more decision-making based on sound scientific advice. Some of you will have the opportunity to provide that, by working at a national lab or government agency, or perhaps as a scientific advisor to Congress or the White House.
For that matter, you could become a Member of Congress yourself, like Congressman Bill Foster.
This is just a sampling of what you can do with a science, mathematics, or engineering degree.
Even if you don't know where you'll end up, half the fun will be getting there. When I was a fresh young high school graduate, I couldn't imagine being the director of one of the nation's premier science agencies.
I've continued a lifelong commitment to public service because I care deeply about the future of this country and its citizens. I hope that you also care enough to consider what you can do for the nation.
You can teach at schools where students don't get as many opportunities to succeed as you got. You can become a mentor to someone younger than you, and open their minds to the excitement of learning.
Or, you could help someone closer to home -- for example, teaching your parents how to negotiate Facebook. You might earn their eternal gratitude -- or at least a continuation of your education support.
To find solutions to global challenges like natural disasters, climate change, or the spread of infectious diseases, we need bright young people, such as yourselves, to face these problems squarely and wrestle them to the ground.
We need storm chasers, willing to fly into the eye of a hurricane to collect data that will help predict whether the storm will turn deadly.
That brings me to another piece of advice: Seek diversity in your friends and experiences. Attend cross-cultural events, and when you travel to other countries, build networks and look for new ideas that you can adapt to your way of life.
You are likely to form partnerships over the Internet -- with scientists or mathematicians in California, New Jersey, Brazil, or China. The National Science Foundation funds programs that can help you do that during your undergraduate and graduate education.
Some undergraduates in these programs have posted videos on YouTube about their research experiences, in places ranging from a cave in Texas to a cybermedia center in Japan.
Did you know that the National Science Foundation grants hundreds of research fellowships every year, to top graduate students?
Now, that's a fact you might want to store in your long-term memory! These fellowships pay students a stipend to study, conduct research, and prepare for a career. The fellowships also include funding for tuition and international travel related to your education.
I think you'll find that, with a degree in science, engineering, or math, there are plenty of ways to serve your community, your nation, and the citizens of the world.
We know you are talented and tenacious to have navigated the requirements of this finest of high schools. Take pride in your accomplishments!
I will look forward to reading your name in print a few years from now, when you've discovered life on another planet or calculated an algorithm that allowed you to simulate a gamma ray burst.
Thank you for allowing me to share this special day with you.
Congratulations! Now, let the celebration begin!