University of Washington

Commencement 2016

It was really an honor to be invited to speak at the Earth and Space Sciences Commencement this year, and it was a great event. Congratulations to all the graduates! Below is the text of my speech:

Good morning, everyone.

It is truly an honor to be speaking to such an inspiring group of graduates, as well as to all the families, friends, and everyone in Earth and Space Sciences who have supported them. Everyone here played a role in the academic successes we are celebrating today, so thank you all. To the graduates, I am sharing in this day with you.

Since I was out of the country during my own ESS commencement, it is extra special to be here today. But also because, like me, the memories you hold include the people here …

As I look out at the faculty I am also thinking back on everything that I have learned from them, and what we shared during the years that I was a student in the department. I will call out just a few of those memories connected to those who are here today… Terry Swanson introduced me to the wonders of Geology – giving me enough confidence to lead vanloads of students on field trips to sites that I had never seen before. Mike Brown guided my class of graduate students in our first year seminar, sharing presentation-giving wisdom that I still apply. In addition to Geology 101, I had the chance to be a teaching assistant for a seismology class taught by Ken Creager and space physics classes taught by Robert Winglee and Erika Harnett – where their passion for these subjects was contagious and I learned the breadth of geophysics in a deeper way – by trying to teach it – and especially by trying to launch a competitive water rocket (though my eggonaut might have wished for a better design). I traveled to China and Tibet with Ron Sletten to exchange with international colleagues and absorb the complex ways science can connect to societies. I also traveled along the west coast of Greenland with Gerard Roe and 15 undergraduates on a learning experience of a lifetime, maybe even more so for us than for the students. From Ed Waddington I learned the foundations of glaciology, how to shape curiosity into scientific understanding, and the rewards of being sincerely dedicated and putting students first

All of the graduates here, you surely have your own set of memories, stories, and lessons learned from this incredible group of teachers and mentors. I also know how much I was supported by my fellow students, and the countless hours we shared in our class work and research, as well as sharing adventures in Seattle and around the world. So look around — you are surrounded by classmates who will be your lifelong friends.

My appreciation for the richness in education and in experience that I received while I was a student here has increased with time, and expanded since my return. It is a real pleasure for me to stand here, a few years ahead of you, and know that you too will soon begin to recognize how many seeds were sown at the University of Washington – and to know that these will lead to continued growth in your professional and personal lives.

During my time today I want to explore three themes that have been particularly transformative and guiding to me: they involve the need to take risks, the value of connection, and identifying your passions.

When putting together this address I thought it would be incredibly difficult to pick out the most important themes to share from my own experiences, the ones that might carry through to all of you who are at different transitions and stages of your education and professional lives. It was difficult, but it was a bit easier than I thought because for many years I have been keeping free-form notes of different observations, questions, thoughts, advice, and lessons. I found that some of these were jotted down multiple times, or underlined. It became clear that I am still putting these to practice so I wanted to share some of that process, which may provide you with some insights or at least highlight a few things that I think are worth considering.

First, the need to take risks…

This has been an important theme for me because I am not naturally a risk taker. I like to have all available maps before traveling, I tend to eat the same thing at my favorite restaurants, and all the technology I use is outdated. While these behaviors may not directly affect my professional standing, my natural tendency to target a safe and known path has to be kept in check. What I am really talking about with risk taking is putting yourself out there, where actions are motivated by trying to redefine your established limits, and require feeling vulnerable as you go beyond what feels comfortable. Reaching, even just a bit. Or, maybe a lot. You may have heard this referred to as “showing up” or “leaning in”, and you may have even been asked, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”. While there may be an underlying fear of failure or of the unknown to face, especially with bigger decisions at career and life transitions, I think risk aversion can be tackled in smaller ways each day by balancing the tendency to sit in the back with raising your hand, to keeping a routine with doing something spontaneous, or to finishing a project yourself with giving a chance to someone new. By getting where you are today you have all taken risks, and your graduation proves that you can come out on top. But, recognize that the resulting highs are as necessary as the lows in order to move forward.

One story of taking a big risk from early in my academic career was when I was choosing a major in my first years as an undergraduate at UCLA. I started out in Environmental Science, but found out that the courses were focused in social aspects of the environment rather than physical ones. I next considered Atmospheric Science because 1997 was a strong El Nino year and I wanted to understand how it could possibly rain so much in Southern California, but I didn’t have enough guidance at that point to understand career options beyond weather forecasting – and since it was usually sunny and 70 degrees, at the time that didn’t seem like a good long-term move. After more courses and consideration I decided to risk majoring in Physics and Astronomy. My family was supportive, not because they understood what I would do with this degree, but because they could tell I was excited about it. But I was one year behind in the required courses and it was hard work to catch up, getting through required perseverance and I was not always successful. But I was making headway, and as I honed an intuition of my interests I found myself with more and more exciting opportunities. After this process of finding a major and later finding my strong interests in Earth and Space Sciences, when I received my bachelor’s degree I remember thinking that I figured out my future — that no matter what I did in between I would someday work for the Jet Propulsion Lab and live in Southern California. At that point in life I hadn’t lived anywhere else, I didn’t have many role models with science degrees, so the decision seemed obvious. But, despite my resolve 16 years ago that hasn’t happened yet. What I really figured out since then was to remain flexible and to allow myself to change my mind. My path was not straight, and definitely something I could not have foreseen – but looking back the pieces fit together, where my professional endeavors came as part of my personal progression and some risk taking.

Second, I want to emphasize the value of connection…

Almost more important than actions that I initiated were those due to nudges – and occasionally more than nudges – from others. Family, friends, loved ones, colleagues, advisors, mentors, and others in your life are hugely important. Identify who gives you strength toward your professional pursuits, even if their experiences don’t seem to directly relate.

While I was in grad school I spent a lot of time with my Grandma, listening to her stories, learning about family history, and often ignoring her specific advice. She was glad that I liked what I was doing but couldn’t understand why I was still in school (and especially when I was no longer taking classes) and was just worried about this path that was so different than anyone else in the family had taken. But in our long discussions it was clear that she had also taken her own path in life, and overcome distinct struggles of her time that made getting a PhD sound easy. Recognizing this, and appreciating our many similarities gave me a major source of strength. Connection is especially important in the sciences, and in my everyday work where I often spend long hours at the computer. But the answers and progress rarely come in isolation, and colleagues and team members provide needed motivation. Mentorship is a special form of connection, and one that I am experiencing in new ways as my role evolves from mostly being mentored to mentoring others – but it always goes both ways. Remember how valuable this has been in your education and in your research, that with it come the pillars of compassion and communication, so be sure to cultivate connections wherever you go next.

Third, I want to offer a way that might help to identify your passions…

Recognizing that anything worthwhile takes a long time, it is important to be passionate about what you are doing – to possess your own variety of boundless enthusiasm (at least most of the time). The main piece of advice that I have came from my first academic mentor who I met when I was an undergrad – he was always telling me to make sure that I was having fun. (And it was advice that I really wanted to follow because it always seemed like he was having a lot of fun). But we all know that accomplishing something hard, that might take a long time, and probably involves risk is not always fun, but overall, “was that fun” – or my revised version of “was that net fun” – is a metric that can be applied as a simple guide.

For example, I have had fun counting craters in images from Mars, hiking long distances with a heavy pack, trying to figure out climate conditions from tens of thousands of years ago, and traversing by snowmachine across the interior of Antarctica. Some of this may also sound fun to you, but that is for you to define. Keep note of what you enjoy doing, and also what you don’t.

And, of course passions are not just professional, so explore all arenas: go for a walk or hike or bike ride, bake, knit, read, build, paint, volunteer, or any other activity… If you enjoy it, make sure you do it often.

There are many stories and threads of experience that come to mind when I reflect on how I got to where I am today. Because I am still in academia my education has been particularly relevant, but the experiences that my undergraduate and graduate education afforded were worth much more than my degrees. The interesting people, places, and questions are what I carry through my life, and what I look forward to finding in the future. We all share this, and it is exciting to consider what you will find next.

You have all just crossed a significant milestone, and are poised to do great things as you go forward. Remember, don’t always play it safe, cultivate connections, and have fun.

While much of what I have said today draws from the past and relates to the future, today is a day to be wholly present. We are here to celebrate your accomplishments, so take it all in – live in these well-deserved moments – and congratulations!

Thank you.