Commencement 2020

I graduated from the University of Washington Department of Speech & Hearing Sciences in December 2019, and was asked to give a commencement speech for our virtual graduation this June. Here is the text of my speech.

Congratulations to all of my classmates in Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of Washington. I wish we could be together for graduation. I’ve been asked to give a commencement speech, and it hasn’t been easy to write. I’m recording this on the first of June, when a lot of us are tired. We’re dealing with separation from loved ones and sickness. We’re grieving the murder of George Floyd. It’s a lot. At the same time, graduation marks the significance of years of hard work, and I want to leave you with a message to honor it. So I’ll do my best.

Ten years ago, almost to the day, I started working in a lab. On the first day I brought a sandwich for lunch and I put it in a fridge. It turned out that was the fridge where we kept glass beakers of little green leeches for experiments. Slowly and improbably I fell in love- not with the leeches, but the quiet and rigorous and occasionally rewarding process.

When I started my PhD I bought into this idea that if you were patient and still, the universe would reveal simple truths like the golden ratio, and that if you only had enough data or a big enough computer you’d start to see structure. That’s math, though. Specifically, theory. Theory is beautiful, but practicing science is ugly. Have you ever looked at a brain- not a line drawing of the platonic brain in a textbook, but a real one, that’s gray and stinks of formaldehyde? Or tried to design a study on five-year olds, who have zero problems peeing on the big expensive magnet you could only afford thanks to a federal grant?

Somewhere, maybe around year six or seven of this education, I stopped feeling excited about grand unifying theories. The alternative is embracing and respecting complexity.

Respecting complexity means refusing to accept ideas just because they’re elegant. It means giving people the dignity of being mysteries, not writing off their motives to nameable psychological drives. It means not overstating the power of our methods. Today, we know plenty about materials, the climate, and certain organs, but not much about why we each are the ways we are. Our experiments usually yield conclusions about average people, the theoretical point at the center of the distribution of all the ways a person could be. We downplay how noisy our findings are, and how hard it is to know where so many results fit into a single human life.

I don’t mean we should give up on understanding our minds. But we need to be vigilant about people abusing the authority our culture gives science to manipulate and oppress: to convince women they aren’t biologically predisposed for certain kinds of work, to pathologize expressions of gender or sexual identity, to affirm a narrow view of human potential. Perhaps, the more frank we can be about the complexity of the problems we study and the limits of our measures, the better we can disarm these abuses.

Respecting complexity also means being careful with narratives about lone heroes and saviors. In science and especially tech, we can get swept up promising a lot of revolutions: AI in healthcare, personalized medicine, apps to diagnose and treat. Yet so much ill-health in our country seems to be the predictable consequence of poverty and injustice. If we can’t provide affordable homes, freedom from racial injustice, and comprehensive healthcare for all, technological progress will offer little to those who need the most. Science is an investment in the long run. Meanwhile, ensuring universal access to basic standards of living and care can’t wait.

I’ll last say that respecting complexity means being clever isn’t enough. Maybe the lesson from this ten-year-long education is that this is really okay. The important problems, the ones that give your life shape and cause, will almost surely outlast you. This isn’t just about science. It’s communities committed to caring for their most vulnerable members even though no one knows when this pandemic will end. It’s protesters demanding justice in the face of hundreds of years of racism. These things aren’t easy, but they are worth the work.

So, I wish the Class of 2020 luck: may you find problems that animate, sustain, and reward you. Thank you for being my classmates.