Beginning of a ‘great responsibility’

After years of research, teaching and training, nearly 300 doctoral candidates closed out their Carolina careers May 13 at the Dean E. Smith Center. As their time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill came to an end, they were given a new challenge: use their degree for public good.

It’s a mission Carolina has long prepared the graduates for, Doctoral Hooding commencement speaker and alumnus Richard Lenski said.

“Thanks to your Carolina education, and the hard work that brought you to where we are today, you have a prepared mind,” said Lenski, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship recipient, member of the National Academy of Sciences and the John Hannah Distinguished Professor of Microbial Ecology at Michigan State University.

Chancellor Carol L. Folt presided over the Doctoral Hooding ceremony that celebrated the 270 students who earned their doctoral degrees.

“Carolina simply would not be the top-tier public, research university it is without all of you,” Folt said. “While this has been your physical home for a few years, you are forever part of this family and you’re going to join the ranks of many other highly distinguished alumni who are innovators in their fields and leaders in their disciplines.”

Doctoral candidates were draped with colorful velvet hoods by their academic advisor as the students officially received their degrees. Originating from the medieval university traditions of the 12th and 13th centuries, the hooding symbolizes the welcoming of the graduate as a member of academia, Graduate School Dean Steven W. Matson said.

It’s a process, Matson said, that takes years of commitment and self-discipline. He challenged the graduates to use their degrees to take on some of the biggest problems facing society.

“I ask that you take the commitment to excellence and go out into your community, whether here in North Carolina, or across the United States or across the oceans, and make your community a better place for its citizens,” he said. “Lend your passion and knowledge to your community and watch it grow and prosper.”

Only 1.7 percent of the United States population holds a doctoral degree, said Folt, noting that the graduates now hold a “great responsibility” to make a difference in the lives of others.

“The future is going to be defined by your work and the strength of your resolution and taking value from all that you’ve done to attack some of the most challenging problems,” she said. “You do know how to do it. You’ve learned a lot about challenging legacy thinking, about innovating in the public good right here at Carolina.”

Lenski said that will be just one of the many challenges the new graduates will face in their careers.

Reflecting on his own career and research of tracking the evolution for more than 65,000 generations of E. coli bacteria, he compared life to a game of poker and the challenge of “making decisions in the face of uncertainty.”

Whether it’s a rejected paper, failed experiment or changing professional directions entirely, the graduates will undoubtedly come across difficulties in their careers.

How they respond to those challenges, Lenski said, will make all the difference.

“You will encounter many uncertainties, probably some obstacles, and hopefully some terrific opportunities as the cards of life are dealt to you,” he said. “Play them well. Know when to hold them. Know when to fold them. And sometimes you won’t really know what to do, so you’ll just have to give it your best shot.”

By Brandon Bieltz, University Communications