• Credit: Bob Paz

Convocation 2013 Welcomes New Students

On Sunday, September 22, Caltech extended a formal welcome to new undergraduate students, graduate students, parents of new students, and postdoctoral scholars at its 11th annual Convocation at Beckman Auditorium. Anneila Sargent, vice president for student affairs and Ira S. Bowen Professor of Astronomy, presided over the ceremony, during which speakers urged students to take advantage of the many research opportunities and extracurricular activities available to them during their time at Caltech.

Interim president Edward Stolper, provost and William E. Leonhard Professor of Geology, welcomed the new students, encouraging a liberal science education and reflecting on advice he had received as an undergraduate. "You don't have to learn everything while you're an undergraduate. Focus on a few things, and learn them well and deeply," he advised, while also advocating involvement in club activities, community service, off-campus internships, and study abroad programs.

Stolper also explained the societal responsibilities the students will inherit with a Caltech education. "While you're learning science and technical things, your education is leavened with a strong dose of exposure to the humanities and social sciences. This provides a societal context for what technically educated people do and really prepares you to participate as citizens of the world," he said. "Technically educated people in this day and age play such a critical role, and you have an obligation to use your technical and scientific knowledge in the service of humanity, and to do that, you need the strong emphasis that we provide on the humanities and social science."

The interim president also addressed the graduate students, encouraging them to persevere and take chances with their research. "Work on projects that are a little risky. Don't be afraid to try new things and fail, because one of the most important things you can learn is how to fail well," Stolper said. "Sometimes you have to beat your head against the wall before you find something that works. Research is hard—you're solving problems that have never been solved before."

Guest speaker and Caltech alum Viviana Gradinaru (BS '05), assistant professor of biology, spoke to students about the hard work expected of Caltech undergraduates and also about her own experiences of perseverance in graduate research. Gradinaru discussed her work in optogenetics—a technique allowing researchers to use light to control individual neurons in a living brain. Optogenetics, she said, might provide a better understanding of how therapies for motor and mood disorders work in the brain—like the use of deep brain stimulation as a treatment for Parkinson's disease.

"I was an undergraduate here. Your brain will be challenged, there is no doubt about it," Gradinaru said of Caltech. "But my experience makes me want to talk to you about something else: sustainability. We hear a lot about this in the context of environmental challenges, in the context of food availability for the growing global population, but we don't hear as much about it in the context of ourselves," Gradinaru said. Although students at Caltech are expected to contribute to important work, Gradinaru encouraged the new students to maintain a balance in life while also continually trying their best.

Reading an excerpt from the poem, "How to be Perfect" by Ron Padgett, Gradinaru provided a piece of advice to the new students: "Straighten up your room before you save the world. Then save the world."

Written by Jessica Stoller-Conrad