Wednesday, November 4, 2009

It’s a tremendous pleasure to join you today at this wonderful luncheon. You are a very impressive group of young people, and I am proud to be part of this celebration of your talent and accomplishment. The Des Moines Area Optimist Clubs know it’s important to show you that your efforts—your academic achievements and your contributions to the greater good—are worthy of recognition. I am grateful for theirefforts on your behalf.

We are celebrating a couple of important things at this event: achievement and partnership. I know that your academic achievement has much to do with what got you here today. But I think you know that being a good student goes beyond doing well on your tests and papers. This luncheon also celebrates the fact that excellent students are also excellent members of their communities—their school communities and their communities at large.

Pursuing an education involves the quest for new knowledge and the development of sophisticated intellectual skills. But truly educated people know that what’s most important is applying their learning to make our world a better place. Because you’re here today, you understand that one of the most important outcomes of your education is partnership with your fellow society members.

Partnership does not happen only as a result of education, however. Your academic pursuits themselves are also a team effort. Your teachers and mentors are an important part of that team. So we also thank the teachers, principals, and superintendents who are here with us today.

And, of course, your family and friends are also part of your success team, as they give you support and encouragement. I myself come from a family that strongly believed in the power and privilege of education, even though my parents were not able to pursue its higher levels. My mother barely finished high school before she entered the workforce. My father, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, only finished the eighth grade. But the spirit of learning was fierce in then. Upon arriving in this country at age 12, my father spoke no English. When they put him in kindergarten as a result, he read the dictionary for a whole year so that they would put him in the sixth grade.

Although my parents’ educational attainment was limited, they passed their strong beliefs in learning on to their children. I was the only child in my family to go to college, but they supported me wholeheartedly, even when it was financially difficult. I am extraordinarily proud of my educational and professional achievements, and if my parents were still alive, I know they would be, too. I try to keep a sense of their pride in my imagination as I work on the amazing task of being the President of a world-renowned University. Thanks to my family, I value learning to the highest degree possible.

Many of you here that we are honoring today will go on to college, some to graduate school, and maybe even some to an academic career. Maybe somebody here will become a President of a university some day! But no matter what you do in the future, I know that you will always value learning. And I know that those who support you today will do so tomorrow. As your teachers, mentors, and family members, we happily share in your past successes, but we also can’t wait to be part of your bright future, too.

At The University of Iowa, our mission is really not much different from what you seek to do as excellent students engaged with your communities. Like you, we want to make the world a better place by creating knowledge and sharing it. For some of you, college is in the near future. For others, it is still a number of years off. But regardless of how far in the future your post-high-school graduation plans are, one of the most important things for you to do now and always—and what will put you on the path to success—is to pursue your passion.

For me, when I was just a little older than you, that passion lay in the research university. The research university is a very special place. It is in the laboratory, the library, the faculty studies and offices of a research university where the most cutting-edge knowledge is created and discovered. A research university is doing its job best when that cutting-edge knowledge makes its way to the general public and into undergraduate classrooms. And I think a research university is achieving its pinnacle of success when undergraduates are actively engaged in the research itself. So a research university is a great place for a college education!

I say all this as a result of my own experience. My dream was never really to become a university administrator, let alone a president. My dream was to be a scientist. Perhaps the key event of my undergraduate career happened right away during my first year at The University of Kentucky. As a freshman, my interests in the biological sciences were growing rapidly. Fortunately, I was exposed to a number of very talented and dedicated professors. One young professor in particular—who, by the way, graduated from The University of Iowa—invited me into his laboratory. This mentor showed me what research in the biological sciences was all about. He showed me what being a faculty member was like and directed me toward graduate school. We ultimately published a paper together, and he even helped me gain some teaching experience as a freshman lab instructor during my junior and senior years. The experience, though, was more than a simple career-launcher. It sparked my passion for research, for education, and for the world of the university.

Now that I am the President of a research university, I often get most excited when I hear about the wonderful research that undergraduates are doing at Iowa, right alongside their professors.

Just yesterday, we released the news that Matt Flannigan, an undergraduate student in civil and environmental engineering, will be honored next month at the Partners in Environmental Technology Technical Symposium and Workshop in Washington, D.C. He will join Engineering Professor Jerry Schnoor and graduate student Travis Anderson in being recognized with a Project of the Year Award from—let me take a breath—the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program/Environmental Security Technology Certification Program, which is a cooperative program of the Department of Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Energy. The project that Matt is working on involves phytoremediation—the use of plants to alleviate the effects of pollution. Matt, Professor Schnoor, and Travis Anderson took their work from the laboratory to test it in the field at Eglin Air Force Base in Galveston, Texas. Sustainability is one of the UI’s highest priorities—in our operations and in our curriculum—so it is especially exciting to see an undergraduate directly involved in research that will improve our environment.

Here’s another great example: Rachel Nathanson from West Des Moines is currently a senior with a double major in economics and geography. She was one of 60 students across the country last year who won a Truman Scholarship, which is given for graduate study to students who show leadership potential, intellectual ability, and the likelihood of making a difference in public life. Rachel wants to pursue a career in global change science and policy. In addition to her internship at the Iowa Office of Energy Independence and her study abroad experience in Spain, Rachel also earned her Truman Scholarship thanks to the alpine tundra research she conducted with the Department of Geography.

Another recent award winner is Alexandra Keenan from Urbandale, a triple major in biomedical engineering, international studies, and biochemistry. Alexandra has recently won a “Top 10 College Women” award from Glamour magazine. She wants to become a physician and scientist, discovering new treatments and providing them to people in underserved areas here in the U.S. and abroad. Alexandra herself notes the importance of passion. She says, “The professors I’ve met are enthusiastic about their work because they know it’s meaningful. I know I have to pick areas of study that are meaningful, very meaningful to me.” Her meaningful interests include treating diseases that plague developing countries, the kind of problems that pharmaceutical companies often overlook. And she pursues her passion through undergraduate research. Alexandra spends every winter and summer break in internship and research opportunities, which have included working at an HIV/AIDS clinic and orphanage in Mexico, conducting research at the Keck Graduate Institute and the University of California at Berkeley, and collecting data at a hospital in India. But her research is not only beyond the University’s walls. During the school year, Alexandra works in a University of Iowa medical lab that’s pursuing a vaccine for a disease often called “black fever,” which is second only to malaria as a parasitic killer worldwide.

Research opportunities are not only in the sciences, of course. At a research university like Iowa, you can most likely find a research opportunity in almost any area of interest. At Iowa, in fact, we have the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates, which matches students with professors who are looking for undergraduate research assistants.

One example is Intermedia Professor Sarah Kanouse in the School of Art and Art History, who is seeking undergraduate help with the Intermedia Digital Archive. This is a digital collection of rare video and performance art spanning nearly forty years. She needs an undergraduate Research Fellow to transfer heritage video formats to digital files for delivery over high-speed networks, work with library staff and Intermedia faculty to determine best collection and distribution practices, investigate copyright ownership and contact artists and their estates for copyright clearances—in other words, complex and high-profile activities that professors often do themselves. And Professor Kanouse notes that this work could very well lead the undergraduate Research Fellow to participate in professional conferences and publications that come out of this work.

There is much that is exciting about the undergraduate experience, including community service, cheering on our athletic teams, participating in all kinds of extracurricular activities, and so forth. You yourselves know how rewarding those activities are from your own highly engaged school experience so far. But no doubt your passions in life will lead you to pursue an area of interest in great depth, and you will most likely want to devote your professional life to that pursuit. There are few better places to get you right onto the launching pad of those passions than the research university.

I—and your Optimist Club friends, your teachers and mentors, your school principals and superintendents, and your friends and families--can’t wait to see how you will all enlighten the world through your passions. I hope that the UI will be a place where you would consider pursuing those passions.

Once again, congratulations on your achievements that brought you to this appreciation luncheon. And thank you once again to the Optimist Clubs of Des Moines for recognizing your achievements and for inviting me to speak with you today.