I had a chance to welcome the class of 2025 this week. The ceremony took place in the large and well ventilated arena with thousands of masked and vaccinated students looking on. A bit scary, but a milestone to be sure. Everyone had to have a negative PCR test to enter. They put me on the agenda right behind the student speaker who is a speech and debate champion….not nerve wracking at all! Anyways, here is what I said (slightly edited):
Wow, class of 2025! You made it! Some say showing up is half the battle. But this year, showing up is a complete, hard-fought victory. You’ve done a lot to get here, and we have been working hard to make sure that the university is the best and safest place for you to be right now. I’m going to tell you a little of the story about how people across this great university, some of them with us here today, came together to make welcoming you and your families possible.
But first let’s talk a bit about how stunning it is to be here all together in this place after the last 18 months. This is certainly an intense way to get back into speaking in front of students! The last time I gave a speech like this was at my 8th grade graduation in 1986. Our class of about 50 graduated that year and went on to enter a regional high school class of almost 1000. 35 years later, I have no idea what I said, and the notes are lost to history, but I remember being terrified.
There could have been a nugget or two of advice from a 13-year-old me that might have been helpful to you today – but not likely much. You have already lived a life that I could hardly have imagined in 1986. You have endured a pandemic, the sometimes-explosive reexamination of racism in this country, the pressures of climate change and more. Coming of age in this time and place has challenged your mental and physical health, strained your finances, and for many of you has meant the loss of family and friends.
I must tell you, while this has been a tiring two years, we know you enter college hopeful and full of high expectations for yourselves and for this place. We aim to meet those high expectations and make your time here rewarding and life changing.
The town I grew up in was about ten times smaller than the population of this university! I am sure that this is true for many of you as well. We all come to this place from other places, and we bring our memories, traditions, and hopes with us. You have moved from something smaller to something bigger, with more opportunities that you can imagine. Those opportunities are accessible online to be sure, but many of the serendipitous meetings and experiences that will change your life can only happen in person. When I was a freshman at Northwestern University, I was planning on being a journalism major. I had been the editor of my high school newspaper. I had not taken any science AP courses, since my high school counselor didn’t think that would be useful for someone who wanted to be a writer. But during freshman orientation week, I had some time to kill, and I was wandering around campus. I bumped into a tour at the engineering school and followed along. I found myself in a small dark room watching a scientist use a scanning electron microscope. After that tour I changed my mind about my major and re-registered for engineering classes. What was she looking at? What minute wonder of the universe caused me to change the direction of my entire life? She was watching cement dry. Hardly Earth shattering! But it was cool, and it was small, and it was beautiful to me. I wanted whatever my job was to involve studying the world at that size scale. A serendipitous meeting. A life changing moment. It could only have happened in person.
Those moments await you around every turn. The expansive and collaborative nature of this place is what makes it great. In my 18 years here I have run a research laboratory that has been home to students from engineering, the college of arts and sciences, the school of public health, and the school of medicine. In my lab, we work to bring new technologies for miniaturized medical diagnostics to underserved or unserved populations. My involvement in this work is how I came to be the Scientific Director of the Clinical Testing Laboratory.
Soon after we went remote, it became clear to many of us that with the available knowledge at the time that the university would not be able to open safely in fall 2020 without routine molecular testing for COVID-19.
In April 2020, the university president sent me an email.
I hope you are safe and well. I suspect, like me you are about to go crazy staying at home. [Note this was only 5 weeks into lockdown!]
…I am very interested in pulling together the resources to do high throughput testing for COVID via PCR. We don’t have a great deal of time to have this up and running by mid-August. The project needs organization and leadership. Are you interested in being involved?
Please let me know…
I responded immediately in the affirmative. After all, my entire professional life had been focused on diagnostic testing. My lab works on making these tests small and accessible to communities without highly instrumented laboratories. Although I had spent my entire career up to April 2020 trying to make things that do not require sophisticated laboratory equipment, it was immediately clear that to keep the university open, such laboratory equipment would be required.
For the first couple of weeks, our team was small. Members of my laboratory were quickly joined by colleagues in Electrical and Computer Engineering. Our expertise in molecular testing combined with theirs in programming liquid handling robotics set the foundation of the team.
The earliest work, during a time when the dangers of contracting COVID-19 were still largely unknown, was done by graduate students, post docs, and a couple of newly minted grads. Together we built a plan, tracked down costs, interviewed suppliers and gathered information from teams that were starting similar projects at other colleges and universities around the country.
Once the president gave us the go ahead to proceed, our team grew to include lawyers from the general counsel’s office to help us navigate the regulatory landscape. Soon after that we needed the procurement group to help us secure the necessary equipment and supplies in a very uncertain marketplace with rapidly changing supply chains. Next, we had to leverage the facilities and building management apparatus of the university to set up places to collect up to 6500 swabs a day. As we worked, people on other teams reinforced student and employee health services, upgraded ventilation systems, redesigned move-in procedures, made and posted thousands of new signs, communicated our plans to the community, worked with the city and state departments of public health, and built new IT systems to make all of it work together.
It wasn’t a perfect roll out, but it was very very good. This project was the most challenging and, in my opinion, the most successful and rewarding project of my career.
Twelve weeks later, In July 2020, we delivered our first test results to students on the medical campus. By the end of August, we were routinely testing everyone on campus at least once a week.
By now you have all interfaced with the system that was put into place over those 12 weeks. I took my 14-year-old daughter with me when I dropped off my last test, and when we walked out she said, “That was it? They just scanned the tube?” I was a bit disappointed. Didn’t she want to know about those days last July when we frantically were calling the graphic designer at the company supplying the tubes because they did, in fact, not just scan? About any of the other road blocks and challenges that were coming at us like a firehose those first few months? Of course not.
All of the difficulties and minutiae that we dealt with, and the team continues to deal with, were invisible from the vantage point of the end user. As any good engineer or designer knows, the end user just needs the system to work. It needs to work so you can go to class, play sports, put on dance recitals, attend studio classes, or work on problem sets late into the night knowing that you are doing these things in the safest possible environment.
Nearly every time we needed to add people to the project with a particular skillset, we had those people already here, and they were eager and ready to serve. I encourage you to look closely as you spend time here at all the things that just work. The chairs set up in this room, the sound system amplifying my voice, the entire schedule of today’s events were all planned weeks and even months in advance. We have been waiting to welcome you and eager for you to contribute to this place in your own unique way.
These four years will pass by quickly, but they will be some of the most influential years of your life. The only certainty is that you will change. Many of you will change your major, like I did! Some of you will change it more than once! Some of you will change your pronouns. You will meet lifelong friends. Some of you will meet life partners. You are entering into an exciting new world of ideas.
I have certainly changed during my 18 years here. When I first arrived here I used walk by students during move in and see parents hugging their children goodbye. I saw all these new beginnings – these launches of young people into a new phase of life. Now that I am a parent, as my girls approach college age themselves, it’s harder for me to watch families say goodbye. In fact, it now brings tears to my eyes. Interacting with the world in this way allows us all to appreciate our shared humanity. I’m sure we all appreciate being together again now more than ever.
The class of 2025 is remarkable already. As you enter this next phase of your life and education, I wish you the very best. Welcome. We are so very glad that you are here.