Dr. Anne C. Petersen

Deputy Director
National Science Foundation

Commencement Address

College of Computer, Mathematical, and Physical Sciences
University of Maryland

May 23, 1996

It is truly an honor, but also a genuine pleasure, for me to be here this afternoon to share a few thoughts with you -- the Class of 1996 -- and with your families, friends, faculty, and all the distinguished guests who have joined us today.

I feel very fortunate to have viewed commencements from all the sections where each of you is seated today. I've been a graduating student, professor, guest, and parent as well.

I think I like the parent's view the best. You are so filled with pride that you are ready to burst at the seams. You also enjoy the blissful certainty of knowing that your cash flow will soon improve considerably. Maybe that's the real reason commencement speakers always say graduation is not an end, it's a beginning.

From all of these different vantage points, it's safe to say that I've heard dozens, perhaps scores, of commencement addresses. They've run the gamut from the sensible to the sublime, and they have varied immensely in quality.

Over the years, I have realized there is one simple formula for separating the great commencement addresses from the not so great. It often has little to do with the subject matter or the speaker's conviction. Rather, what distinguishes the great ones is one simple trait -- they are usually the shortest in duration. This afternoon, you can rest assured that I will strive for greatness.

Of course, if all of us could accomplish our goals simply by being brief, life would be much easier. There is a saying that everyone is a fool for at least ten minutes a day; wisdom consists of not exceeding the limit.

Today, I aim to use my time wisely. I want to share a few thoughts on how we can exceed the limits we perceive in life, and, in doing so, turn the tables on all the forces that hold us back and weigh on our shoulders. Over at the business school, I think they call this turning challenges into opportunities.

Since we are gathered as a college dedicated to science, it's more appropriate to view this from a scientific perspective. Instead of letting certain forces slow us down, we can torque the vectors and turn those forces around by 180 degrees (that's pi in radians for you physicists). Then, all of these forces will propel us forward instead of holding us back.

In today's society there are many forces we would like to turn around. In fact, our era is so fraught with opposing forces that it is often described as an age of contradictions. We are doing better but feeling worse, and getting richer but feeling poorer. Unemployment is at its lowest level in years but we worry more about finding work and keeping our jobs.

In my work at the National Science Foundation, I see a similar set of contradictory trends applying to science as well. There has never been a more exciting era for scientific discovery, yet the future of science in America has never been more uncertain. We are discovering planets beyond our solar system and harnessing the power of teraflop supercomputers. We've even proven Fermat's Last Theorem.

It is an amazing time for American science. Some even say we are witnessing a golden age for discovery. Yet against this backdrop of success and excitement, we find too many people who favor astrology over astronomy and crystals over crystallography.

We can all speculate on the causes of these confounding and contradictory trends. There undoubtedly are many -- some longstanding, some still emerging. I believe one of the principal root causes was identified this past January by Time magazine in an article entitled, State of the Union: Are We Better Off? Time's overall assessment is that: "In the U.S. economy, stability is a dream, change and uncertainty the norm."

While Time focused specifically on the U.S. economy, this sense of instability, uncontrollable change, and uncertainty applies to countless other facets of modern life as well. I can't even keep up with the software that runs on my computer, or which inedible grain or legume is this month's miracle cure for high cholesterol. All of this contributes to a sense of losing control.

Some 35 years ago, America's first seven astronauts were put through an extraordinary battery of tests as they prepared for their first voyages into the final frontier. Some of the most arduous tests were simulations of launch and re-entry. The astronauts were exposed to extremes of temperature, turbulence, g-forces and other stresses that I gather were almost as rough as final's week.

The mission controllers conducted an important experiment with these tests. They constructed two simulators. In one, the astronauts were simply buckled into their seats and had no control over their surroundings. They were along for the ride, so to speak. In the other simulator, there was a switch, a simple toggle switch. If the stresses became too much to handle, the astronaut had the option of reaching out and switching off the simulation.

No astronaut ever even reached for the switch, let alone used it. But as the mission controllers monitored the simulations, they learned something revealing about human nature. When in the simulator with the switch, the astronauts displayed lower blood pressures, body temperatures, and slower heart rates.

In other words, they were able to cope more effectively with the extreme stresses and pressures. The mere notion of possessing some measure of control over our surroundings can make all the difference in how we react emotionally and physiologically to stress.

Of course, challenges in real life don't come with on/off switches. We never have the option of saying, "stop the world I want to get off." Some might say we are just along for the ride. But, I would argue that life's greatest challenge is to be more than just an unwitting passenger on this journey.

A key to this is coping with the stresses and uncertainties of modern life. Scientists have learned that we react to stress in complicated ways. If you were to graph the relationship between various measures of well being and levels of stress, the results might surprise you. Most people guess that the relationship follows a straight line -- the less stress the better.

In fact, the average pattern follows a curve -- a quadratic function -- that peaks in the middle. Just as too much stress can overwhelm us, too little leaves us un-stimulated and bored. We actually don't want everything handed to us on a silver platter.

Instead, we need challenges that motivate and inspire us, and we need to set goals that test our abilities. I doubt that this comes as a total shock to any of you. If you were the kind of person who wanted life handed to you on a platter, you would never have enrolled at Maryland in the first place. There are eight other schools in the ACC for people who want to take the easy route.

Now we can turn to the burning question that I've left unanswered. How do we cope with the uncertainty of modern times if we can't have or don't need the total control that comes with an on/off switch?

To answer this question, I am going to ask you to do something that is probably second nature to most of you -- think about a computer.

When you look at the keypad of your personal computer, you'll see a key labeled Control. But you also see keys with other labels -- Macs have an Option key, and PC's have an Alt key, implying Alternatives. These keys work with other keys to perform similar functions -- like cutting, pasting, and executing commands. But as similar as they are in computing, terms like control and options suggest very different approaches to how we shape our lives.

In a rapidly changing world such as we are experiencing, complete control is a dream, as Time magazine concluded. But, looking for the options and alternatives open to us -- and creating options for ourselves where they are not apparent -- can give us a sense of direction and volition that enriches our lives immensely.

I reflect on this in the unexpected turns my own life has taken. Even though I've spent most of my career in academia, the path I've followed could not be predicted from the fields listed on my diplomas. I, for one, never expected degrees in mathematics and statistics to lead me into research on adolescence or to administrative posts at universities and government agencies. Those were unexpected turns that I had the option of choosing, and I'm glad I did.

Today marks a day in your life when you gain options -- options you have created for yourself. Having gained these options, your toughest assignment now might be resisting limits on what you or others think you can do. People may say to you, physicists don't go into finance, mathematicians don't enter management, and meteorologists don't pursue public policy. I would respond by saying, that's exactly where we are most needed.

A recent survey conducted by Cornell University found that fewer than half of the managers in Fortune 1000 companies were viewed as technologically literate by their colleagues. It's hard to believe in this day and age that a corporate manager could get away without knowing the difference between quantum mechanics and auto mechanics, or between a potato chip and a computer chip.

This fact provides just one more reminder that none of you should define too narrow a role for yourselves in our society. More and more jobs now require technological expertise -- not just skills, but in-depth expertise -- the kind you've acquired here at Maryland.

And so to conclude, I confess that I cannot offer any switches to turn off the uncertainty and constant change that surrounds us. But in the final analysis, most of us don't need or even want that level of control. It is the options and alternatives available to us that matter most, and we can pursue them to their full potential.

You may recall two things that I said earlier in this talk: first, that wisdom comes from not exceeding our limits, and second, that our greatest challenge is to be more than unwitting passengers on our journey through life.

To close, let me amend the first and reinforce the second. In today's world, we display wisdom when we look beyond the limits that others try to place on us. What is most important is deciding what you enjoy and what you can contribute. By doing that, we gain the ability to appreciate the unexpected turns we take on our own journeys through life.

Thank you again for allowing me to join you today, and congratulations once again to the Class of 1996.

Return to list of Dr. Petersen's speeches.