Dean Nowicki Welcomes Class of 2012

'Become us and make us more and better than we are now'

Dean Nowicki asks students to 'renew us.'

Mr. President and colleagues, parents and family members, and most especially, you women and men sitting here in front of me: it's both my honor and my most sincere pleasure to mark the moment when such a promising group of young people have come together to form Duke University's Class of 2012.

That's what this "convocation" is about, of course. The word comes from the Latin for "calling together" and was used in medieval times to refer to a gathering of high church officials, who no doubt discussed weighty matters of ecclesiastical concern. In our modern university, we've substituted bright young people for elderly bishops, and we've transformed the purpose of the meeting into the ceremonial moment at which you not-quite-yet Duke students officially become part of our university.

So now that moment is upon us -- you have been convoked! (and, yes, that is a word -- I looked it up). My colleagues and I have dressed ourselves in colorful garments more suited to the Middle Ages (and I hope you agree we look pretty sweet up here) and our President has brought out the rather impressive necklace and scepter that magically empowers him to transform you into Duke students. There's no turning back -- you're no longer just a well-balanced collection of talented young people -- you're now Duke's Class of 2012!

So -- how does it feel? Pretty good, I imagine. After all, this moment reflects the culmination of a lot of hard work by many -- not the least of which are your parents and other family members, who‘ve toiled for the last 17 or 18 years to bring you, the women and men of the Class of 2012, to such a heightened state of readiness. The whole point of what we do at Duke depends on the annual arrival of a new class of eager and talented students -- students who will give purpose to our scholarly efforts and who will, most importantly, help carry this scholarship forward into the world where it can really make a difference.

To you parents and family members who've raised these women and men, I and my colleagues thank you for bringing them to us. The good work we'll do with the Class of 2012 over the next four years is only possible because of the good work you've already done for close to two decades. You're justifiably beaming with pride right now, and we do indeed thank you, as I'm sure your daughters and sons also thank you.

What else can I say to you who are the parents and families of our Class of 2012? Weirdly, but honestly, one image that comes to my mind is from the film "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." (If you haven't seen this classic, I highly recommend it.) The image I'm thinking of -- again, I'm being totally honest here -- is a short scene tacked on at the end of the credits when Matthew Broderick comes back on screen and says "You're still here? Go home. Go."

I realize this may sound cruel, to ask you who've given so much to go home now. It's bad enough that we've only invited you to join our ceremony by remote digital proxy. But I assure you, I know your pain. I'm the parent of a child who left for college only a few short years ago. And further, I assure you that letting go is the best thing you can do now for your daughters and sons. Although it probably wasn't the intent of our Founders when they designed Duke, this separation now imposed on you parents by the whims of our seating capacity and the rules of the Fire Marshall may serve as a symbolic first step to letting go. You've done your job, and you've done a great job. So after a little more speechifying and some lunch, you can go home and rest assured.

Now let me turn my address to the obvious stars of the moment -- this group of remarkable young people I see before me! You've worked very hard, too, I know. And your hard work has paid off. Here you are: members of Duke's Class of 2012, ready to begin your great Duke quest.

I can feel your excitement -- the very stones of this chapel are almost glowing with your energy! In fact, do me a favor -- let's release some of this positive energy into this space. Turn to the person next to you and give them a high five! Go on, I mean it. After all, you are Duke's Class of 2012 and no one else in the world can claim that distinction!

But this moment isn't just any ordinary feel-good opportunity. There is some important business before us in the next four years, and I'd be remiss if I didn't take this opportunity to reflect on what that important business entails.

Class of 2012, I know you came to Duke expecting to learn things. I expect you've already learned much in the 24 hours or so most of you have been on campus, so I'm sure I can't claim to be the first person to teach you something at Duke. But I dare say there's a possibility that I'm the first bona fide college professor to have the opportunity to teach you something at Duke, and I can't resist this opportunity. I'm a professor of biology, so you'll understand if I take this moment to offer you a lesson in that subject.

This lesson comes from the work of Rudolf Schoenheimer, a biochemist who was born in Germany in 1898 and who was forced to flee his home country in 1933 because he was a Jew. Fortunately, Schoenheimer was able to secure a position in the United States, and this was indeed fortunate because his subsequent research transformed our fundamental understanding of the biochemistry of living things, or what we biologists call (somewhat artlessly, I'll admit) "intermediate metabolism."

Here, in a nutshell, is what Schoenheimer discovered: Before Schoenheimer, physiologists thought that the stuff we eat, drink, and breathe is more or less like the fuel we put into an engine -- only a source of energy to keep the machine running. Oh yes, we assumed that young developing organisms -- children and baby bunnies and such things -- would use some of what they eat to grow, and we also assumed that even fully grown adult organisms -- such as you or I or an adult rabbit -- might need to use a little of the stuff they eat to repair or replace damaged tissues.

But, by and large, the view was that after you had grown to full size, pretty much everything you eat and drink is used as a fuel source, nothing more, to be thrown into a biochemical furnace to make the energy that keeps us alive, awake, and moving. If you eat more than you needed to run your machine, you put it in storage -- that's what fat is.

Schoenheimer's fundamental contribution to science was to perfect the use of isotopes in tracing biochemical pathways. (Note to non-science-types: all this really means is that Schoenheimer figured out a cool way to track what really happens to the stuff we eat.) And here's what Schoenheimer found: The stuff we consume is not just used to power our machine or to repair injuries. Instead, every molecule in our body is constantly turning over -- constantly being replaced -- so that over a period of time virtually your entire body is made of new stuff. Literally, pieces of some of the molecules that made up the sandwich you ate just yesterday are now part of your body -- perhaps part of your arm, your kidney, or one of your little toes! These new molecules have replaced older molecules, which themselves have been broken down and thrown into the cellular furnace, or sloughed off and recycled in myriad other ways.

By one estimate, half of all the proteins inside your cells are recycled every 80 days; at this rate, over 95 percent of the proteins you're made of will be completely replaced in a year's time. And this is not just true for proteins, but for all the kinds of molecules you're made of.

Think about what this means: When you're sitting at graduation four years from now, you'll think you're the same individual physically, and of course in some sense you will be. But in fact you'll be made of virtually entirely different stuff! The very molecules that make up your body will be different from the ones that comprise you right now. You may look at yourself in the mirror and see the same person you saw before, but on the molecular level you'll be completely different, with the substance of what you consume over the next four years becoming your substance. Schoenheimer called this phenomenon "the dynamic state of the body." A simpler way to put it is: "You are what you eat." I bring up Schoenheimer's work not because I think it's the most important first thing you can learn from a professor at Duke (although it is a pretty cool thing to learn). Rather, I bring this up because I think it provides an apt metaphor for what we hope you'll experience over the next four years. Just as your body will seem the same but be made of mostly different molecules four years from now, so too you may think of yourself as being the same person then as you are now, but your mind will have been completely reworked from the stuff of the many, many ideas you'll consume through your Duke experience over the next four years. Your mind will have changed dynamically just as your body has, with the intellectual fabric of your brain absorbing new ideas, turning over old ones, and renewing itself constantly.

Now, I admit that my metaphor hasn't taken us very far yet. Who hasn't been admonished to "keep an open mind" by a teacher at some point in their life? What's the big deal? But there's much more to it than simply keeping an open mind. Schoenheimer's work tells us that you are what you eat in a very real way, but a closer examination of the biology of this phenomenon makes clear that this doesn't just happen for free.

Indeed, at all levels -- from the biochemistry involved, to finding the right things to put into your mouth -- it takes a lot of energy and initiative to fuel the dynamic state of your body. In the same vein, the acquisition of new ideas is not something you experience passively. You need to have an open mouth to feed, but if you simply keep your mouth open and do nothing else, you'll starve to death. You need to keep an open mind to learn, but this by itself also isn't enough. You need to actively find things to put into that open mind. Learning is not a spectator sport!

Like any analogy, my reference to Schoenheimer has its limits. But I believe the analogy works in one more dimension that's important to consider as you embark on your Duke education, even if it breaks down on a couple of other critical points.

Here's a point on which Schoenheimer and I might disagree, at least as far as my use of his work as an analogy for the ideal Duke education: To support the inevitable biochemical replacement of your physical self, it doesn't really matter if you always eat the same things, or if you just eat "comfort foods" -- foods that you know you like -- as long as you eat a balanced diet, one having an adequate mix of nutrients. But this isn't good enough for the life of the mind, at least not for the life of the mind we expect of Duke students. Not only do you need to actively reach out to acquire ideas, you need to work to acquire new and different ideas, maybe even ideas that make you a bit uncomfortable at first.

And so I pose this as a challenge to you, Class of 2012: Move out of your intellectual comfort zone. Reach out to people different from yourself, people who have ideas different from yours. Seek variety! I don't ask you to agree with ideas different from those you're used to; I only ask that you consider them seriously. Like trying new foods, it can be a little daunting to try a new idea. But sometimes, much to your own surprise, you'll find something that you really like that you didn't know you liked. And even if you don't like what you've tried, you'll at least better understand your own tastes -- whether in food or ideas.

My intermediate metabolism metaphor (that rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn't it?) does support another point I want to make about the opportunity that lies before you at Duke. Schoenheimer's work predicts that if you live in one place long enough, your body will take on unique chemical signatures that are associated with that place. In fact, the techniques pioneered by Schoenheimer have been adapted more recently by ecologists to allow them to pinpoint with surprising accuracy where an individual plant or animal comes from in the world, based on subtle chemical differences in the tissues of its body.

If you allow me to analyze the tail feather of a bird that's breeding in Maine, for example, I can tell you approximately where in Central America it spent the winter. Schoenheimer would have predicted this -- if your body is constantly being replaced by new materials, it's no surprise that those materials should reflect the chemical characteristics of where you happen to live.

So what does this say about your impending collegiate experience? Over the next four years, your mind will live at Duke -- maybe not always on campus, perhaps in some remote part of the world, but always as part of your Duke experience. You'll graduate not just as a college student, but as a Duke student, and your mind will reflect the intellectual composition of your Duke experiences the same way a bird's tail feather reflects the chemical composition of wherever it lives when it grows that feather.

This is a good thing. We don't aspire to provide you with a generic education; we want you to have an outstandingly Duke education. If you heed my admonition to actively seek out and consume the varied facets of this great and complex place, then you will indeed graduate with a Duke stamp on your education. Duke is a great institution -- you'll do well to be branded as a Duke student.

But now I come to what's probably the most important point I'll make, and one for which my use of Schoenheimer's work as an analogy fails me. But that's OK. This analogy is starting to get old anyway.

If you live in a place long enough, the chemistry of your body will reflect the unique chemical signatures of that place. But, although you'll shed chemical constituents as much as you incorporate them, it's unlikely that you as an individual will have any measurable effect on the chemical profile of whatever ecosystem you're inhabiting. You're too small, and the world you live in is just too big, from a biochemical point of view. Such is not the case with respect to the life of the mind here at Duke. Indeed, Duke will leave its stamp on you in a very Shoenheimarian way (if that's the word I want). But you can leave your stamp on Duke just as well! This is something that distinguishes Duke from the other very fine universities you might have attended instead. You can form Duke to become your own, as much as Duke will make you its own. Frankly, I'm not really sure why this is the case here at Duke. It might be because Duke is a relatively young university, still growing. This is certainly true, but I don't think that explains it entirely. I think Duke's ability to be changed by its students runs deeper than that; it's in the very DNA of this place (if I can borrow another biological metaphor). And I expect that whoever is up here in my stead a hundred years from now (I hope still wearing a Medieval costume!) will be of the same opinion.

You can change Duke as much as Duke will change you, and you should! This is what true intellectual engagement is about, engagement is what Duke is about, and we want you to be truly engaged.

My last thought is drawn not from Rudolf Schoenheimer's work, but from the circumstances of his life. Schoenheimer, a Jew, was forced to flee his homeland 75 years ago because of ignorance and bigotry, a form of ignorance and bigotry that led to the deaths of many who were not so fortunate as to be able to escape it, and that eventually engulfed the entire world in war. The world has changed much, and for the better, over the past 75 years, but ignorance and bigotry are still with us.

You've all read the story of Valentino Deng, one of the "Lost Boys" who fled the consequences of ignorance and bigotry in southern Sudan. His story is gripping -- but it's not unique, and unfortunately there are far too many similar stories being played out even as I speak. Later this year, at Duke will celebrate our 20th annual commemoration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King who led a struggle against ignorance and bigotry in our own backyard.

Overcoming ignorance and bigotry -- and I'll add to this list overcoming poverty, and disease, and the forces causing the degradation of the very planet we live on -- this ultimately is the work we must do together, and this ultimately is the point of your Duke education.

Class of 2012! If Duke University is a body, you are the molecules that comprise that body. A full quarter of the stuff this university is made of is replaced every year. I'm not talking about the stones of West Campus or the bricks of East, but the really important stuff that makes up this campus -- you, its students. This is why you must incorporate yourself fully into the body and mind of Duke University. Renew us. Become us and make us more and better than we are now. And welcome to Duke.