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Commencement 2015

[Remarks prepared for the William & Mary physics commencement proceedings on May 17, 2015, delivered with some deviations/additions here and there.]

Thank you, Gene, for this generous introduction.

I very much appreciate the opportunity to say some words of inspiration to the graduating class, to the parents, family and friends, and to all my colleagues here today. However, I will have to tamper the expectation of ‘inspiration’. With this weather, the only thing I can guarantee is perspiration...

First of all, let me start with some well-deserved congratulations to all of you!

So, as of today you can call yourselves ‘physicists’ without hesitation. Not ‘in training.’ Not ‘undergraduate physicists.’ And I’d like to think that over the past few years you, physicists, have learned a thing or two about physics:

Quantum-mechanics, classical mechanics, electromagnetism, statistical mechanics: those are the tools of a physicist. And because they are ‘merely’ tools, they need a master (or a bachelor...) who will wield them to build and construct. What you have learned these past four years, I hope, is not only what the Schrödinger equation is, but you have also learned which problems can be solved with it, and which problems can’t. You can try to pound in a nail with a screwdriver, and it will do the job in the end, but it is bound to lead to a great deal of frustration if you keep doing it.

In your senior research some of you have gone further and learned to use more advanced ‘tools’ of the physics trade: X-ray diffraction, multi-anode photomultiplier tubes, liquid scintillators, and large neutrino experiments in the Midwest and at the nearby Jefferson Lab. If the screwdriver of earlier is Calc 1, then you have now upgraded to using the equivalent of large CNC milling machines and advanced 3D printers. In fact, for a few of you that’s even true in a literal sense as well.

As you have all demonstrated over this past year of senior research, you are now able to approach entirely new research problems, figure out a path to solving them, and using the tools of physics to realize the solution. This is what it means to be a physicist: to look at a problem, to figure out what’s important and what’s not, to combine knowledge from different aspects of the problem, and two work towards the solution. Your key to being successful in the future will now be to choose the right problems to work on.

Many of you are going on to graduate school. Several of you here today are graduating from our own Ph.D. program. What is graduate school other than choosing the right problem to work on? To identify using the tools of physics where the solution may lie? The tools become more advanced, and require some more training. Those tools are now: magneto-plasmonics, parity-violating electron scattering, ab initio quantum Monte Carlo,... But after you have, again, mastered the tools, as a graduate student you will apply (or have applied), independently, these tools of physics to new problems.

On campus, all of us, faculty, are concerned about the emotional well-being of our students. These past four years for you have probably included long nights doing homework, hard midterms, cramming for finals,... This will continue for those of you going on to grad school, but also in industry positions you will be working alongside excellent scientists and engineers, trying to complete projects by the deadline. What will change, however, or what has changed already for some of you, is that you will not be living with 50 on a dorm floor, necessarily interacting all the time, and being aware of the struggles that everyone is going through. With the independence of graduate research can come some sort of isolation.

In the intense environment of grad school, it is easy to fall prey to the feeling that you are somehow less qualified than the others, that you don’t belong where you are. In these days of facebook and linkedin profiles, and in the competitive environment in the industrial world as well, everyone has a beautiful front-yard that’s impeccably laid out and where colorful new flowers are placed only after careful planning and pruning. No one puts their doubts or hesitations on display to the world.

Keep in mind that nobody is perfect. You just know your own imperfections better (or you should, by now). Don’t be afraid to ask others for help, to take advantage of your network. Even though you may all go in different directions, for now your network will remain anchored at William & Mary.

Finally, remember to take a step back and look at the rest of the world. Many of us have been extremely blessed with supportive family, who have pushed us forward every step of the way, and who are now here to celebrate with us. Many of us can pass for the majority, for the norm of what a physicist looks like. Many of us have not had to overcome disabilities, or adverse economic conditions while growing up.

If you thought the past four years were hard and challenging, do not forgot how they could have been even harder. Going forward, keep this in mind in grad school.

With those final, hopefully somewhat inspirational words, I would like to close. Again, congratulations to all! And thank you!