Dr. Urdea’s May 8, 2010 commencement address to the graduating class at Washington State University

Commencement Speech: Mickey S. Urdea May 8th, 2010: Washington State University Thank you so much for inviting me here to share this special time with you. In seeking advice for the preparation of a commencement speech, Mario Cuomo received the following from a Father Flynn: “Commencement speakers should think of themselves as the body at an old fashioned Irish wake. They need you in order to have the party, but nobody expects you to say very much.” I’ll soon step aside so that you can resume the party.

In preparation for this event, I thought to myself: what do I know now that I wish I had known at the time I graduated from college? I will take you quickly through my learning process. I hope that you will find something here that is useful to you.

While attending graduate school here at Washington State, I recall a conversation I had with one of my professors, Carl Stevens. I asked him, “What percent of what you know about biochemistry would you say you learned after you graduated?” He thought for a moment and said “probably 95-99%”. I was dumbfounded. If true, I calculated, that would mean that he must have been learning at an even faster pace after graduation than before. This seemed impossible to me. But, now I know that it is true. Also, I think the percentage I have learned since graduation is closer to 99%. Here’s how it seems to work.

Malcolm Gladwell has concluded that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in a subject. If we assume you work at it 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, that’s about 3.5 years which just happens to be about length of a graduate degree program. In my opinion, it usually takes longer. But, what is difficult to understand until you experience it is that you reach a point at which it becomes much easier to learn the subject at an increasingly deeper level. The process is not linear.

Learning to become an expert is something like doing a jigsaw puzzle when you do not know what the final image is supposed to be. You work very hard at first trying to find pieces that fit. You might be tempted to quit. But, then, suddenly, you see patterns and it gets easier to find pieces that fit. Finally, you see the Gestalt of the whole image and you speed toward completion. Frustration becomes joy and a real sense of accomplishment sets in. If you stick with your desired area of expertise, you will reach this point of “pieces fitting”. It is exhilarating. To me, it has been one of the greatest pleasures of life. That pleasure continues for me. Richard Feynman referred to it as “the pleasure of finding things out”.

The puzzle metaphor falls apart when we realize that, in fact, the puzzle is never finished; there are no completed edges; it keeps growing. But, that is part of the fun. I hope this has or will happen to you. However, there is a danger with thinking that we see the puzzle image clearly that I will come to latter.

I met recently with a colleague, Leighton Read, who has spent many years thinking about, believe it or not, the combination of games and health. In his attempts to use gaming mechanics for heath improvement, he and his colleagues have looked deeply at what keeps people engaged in activities. The answer, in a nutshell, is that people remain engaged when they find that they can do something that is very hard very well. If we think about this, it seems so obvious. We all prefer games that we play well. If we are lucky, we find this situation in our career. I believe that this phenomenon is also true when becoming an expert. After seeing the jigsaw image and that the pieces seem to fit, this difficult pursuit becomes more enjoyable and we yearn to achieve more by doing very hard work. This notion of “total engagement” resonates with me. I hope it will with you. When I was in school I had no idea how fun work could be. It still is for me.

By the way, I do not believe that school alone permits one to become a totally engaged expert. We can achieve the same thing with experience on the job, in athletic pursuits or even pursuing hobbies. I have an unusual hobby I started while here as WSU: I raise carnivorous plants. I’m totally into it. Many are very difficult to propagate. It’s hard and I’m good at it.

OK, let me assume that you are experts and you are totally engaged. As business advisor extraordinaire Peter Druker would have asked us: “What do you want to contribute?” I think that few young people ask themselves this question. I didn’t. It took me years to realize what I wanted to contribute. I want to save lives by enabling doctors to make better clinical decisions through new medical diagnostics. That’s it. I used to worry that saving lives would dangerously increase the global population; but, as Bill Gates has pointed out, all evidence indicates that when a population’s life expectancy increases, the size of the population tends to decrease through lower birth rates. This seems paradoxical at first, but it makes evolutionary sense. I wish I had taken the time to think through what I wanted to contribute earlier in my career; I could have contributed more; I have to make up for lost time. Think it through. What do you want to contribute?

In Tom Wolfe’s book, Bonfire of the Vanities, the wife of the main character, Sherman McCoy, explains to their young child what her husband, a financial wizard on Wall Street, does for a living. “There are two kinds of people in the world: Cake Bakers and Crumb Takers. Your father is a Crumb Taker”. I do not begrudge anyone an honest living, but we need more Cake Bakers in our world. You can create something wonderful in so many lines of endeavor. I know that now. Bake something.

I did not know when I graduated that in fact it is possible, through one’s own actions, to change the world. I recall the first meeting we had after I started at Chiron Corporation, one of the major Biotech pioneer companies that began in the 80s. One of the Founders was Bill Rutter, an extraordinary scientist and entrepreneur. Bill stood before us and stated that “the people in this room will find ways to diagnose, treat and prevent many of the major diseases that plague our world”. I thought, wow, that is an amazingly bold vision and statement. But, then I came to realize that we could make it happen. We developed an attitude. We did go on to discover hepatitis viruses A-D and HIV, develop a vaccine for HBV, and develop the first so-called viral load assays used to monitor treatment of viruses like HIV. We just knew that we could do it. I still passionately believe it, probably more so since I’ve tasted the success. There is nothing like being amongst a team of people who KNOW they can change the world, because often, they do.

And, this brings me to the danger I alluded to earlier. There is danger in becoming too regimented in our thinking, too married to that puzzle image. That image might just be wrong even though the pieces seem to fit. Every generation of scientists looks back on the accomplishment of the previous generations with some reverence, but also with surprise concerning the conclusions they made. How did they not know that energy equals mass. How did they not understand that traits are heritable through genes? We know better today. Or do we? We will be looked upon as remarkably ignorant as any previous generation. I actually love this. What is it that we think is true today that is wrong? Can we figure it out?

I recall a lecture by Harry Gray of Cal Tech many years ago; he said, “The results of a well controlled experiment will stand the test of time, but the interpretation will change”. The experimental results are the puzzle pieces. The puzzle image is the interpretation. We need to rethink the puzzle upon occasion. It’s that piece that doesn’t fit that should make us rethink. Some people just ignore the odd piece. Don’t do that. Rethink. Redo the puzzle. 25 years ago who would have believed that gastric ulcers are the result of an infection and not due to stress? Recent evidence suggests that obesity could have an infectious etiology. Wouldn’t that be something?

These transitions in thought are not fast. In fact, they tend to be frustratingly slow. However, if you truly want to make a difference, you will need the courage and fortitude to fight it out. JBS Haldane once identified a series of stages the scientific community goes through in the adoption of new scientific principles. I will paraphrase. The first is, “That’s impossible and unimportant; second, “It’s possible, but not important”; and third, “I knew it all the time”. Getting to that turning point is tough, but worthwhile and incredibly enjoyable. But, you’ve got to stick it out.

The first time I spoke to a group of physicians about testing for HIV in blood to determine whether a patient was responding to antiviral therapy almost everyone in the audience thought it was a crazy idea. They asked “Why do we need this?” The change in thinking took many publications and presentations. Six years later, HIV viral load testing became the standard of care. I had that attitude; I knew this was important and that eventually they’d understand it.

Many years ago, a colleague named Kary Mullis, described to me a new method he was working on called polymerase chain reaction or PCR. I scoffed at him and said it would never work. I also thought to myself “and it’s not important”. Where was JBS Haldane when I needed him? Well, not only did it eventually work, but it is probably one of the most important technology developments in biology in the last century. Kary won the Noble Prize 10 years latter in 1993. I have never thought of new technologies the same way again since. Today’s apparently unimportant discovery is tomorrow’s PCR. Will you recognize it?

So, in summary I hope that you continue your path toward totally engaged expertise, that you find something important to contribute, that you believe in yourselves and that you have the fortitude to carry it through in order to make the world a better place because you are in it. We need you. You can do it. Thank you.

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