Opher Shai Kornfeld was selected as the PhD representative to deliver the Address to the Graduates at the 2018 School of Medicine Convocation Ceremony held on Saturday, June 16th. A transcript of his Address is included below and a video can be viewed by clicking here. Congratulations Opher!
Good afternoon Dean Minor, Senior Associate Dean Talbot, faculty, School of Medicine, Office of Graduate Education, and home program staff, friends, family, and class of 2018 graduates. It is an honor to be speaking to all of you today.
Following one of my first presentations in graduate school, I got an anonymous feedback form that said that my talk felt too polished and that perhaps a bit of self-deprecation may help connect with an audience. So, I’d like to start by sharing with you my list of fears, seems appropriate for a graduation speech. I am scared of the first 15 seconds of a public talk, Californians in cars, Stanford undergraduates on bikes, just about every animal that has been spotted on the dish, and when I began my PhD, I was scared of failing. I must admit, this is an odd position to be in. Much like my colleagues, I spent the last several years learning just how much I did not know so for me to impart words of wisdom at the end of such journey seems out of place. Furthermore, there is no single path to attain a PhD, each one of ours was different. But there is one thing we all learned how to do very well, regardless of the discipline-specific jargon we may choose to overwhelm you with. We learned how to fail. So here we go, three lessons from failing:
Lesson number one: working hard does not guarantee success, nevertheless success requires hard work. This was a tough one to learn. Many of us arrived at Stanford as the top students of our respective undergraduate institutions, with an unfortunate misconception: it will work if you just put more time and all-nighters into it. While this is generally true when your path is clearly paved, science research doesn’t work that way. The living systems we study are complex and unpredictable, our hypotheses are daring, and we must first develop the tools we need to answer our questions. As we learned to overcome the challenges we have set before us, we mastered a combination of grit and creativity. This means that following long hours, days, months, culminating in disappointment, we returned to the bench, our eyes red and our blood fueled with determination, curiosity, and caffeine, ready to confront our challenge from a completely different direction. Here at Stanford, we have spearheaded the notion that the problems we seek to understand, which would have the most profound impact on our society, have roots in numerous fields. To solve them, we had to cross traditional academic boundaries. We learned to be humble as we dove into new disciplines, guided by an ill-defined path, hoping that this time we might find our answer, even if it means failing again.
Lesson number two: find those who believe in you and ask them for help. I learned this one early on, back in middle school as a new immigrant. It turns out that the bigger you dream and the more broken your English sounds when expressing those dreams, the fewer people will be there to cheer you on as you pursue them. A few months after landing in the United States, still unable to form complete sentences in English, I decided to enter our middle school’s spelling bee. Let me clarify, this is not a miraculous graduation story. I crashed on the first word and was ridiculed by the classmates around me. Middle schoolers can get mean, but reviewer #2 will likely be meaner. And much like learning a new language in a new country, the PhD experience gets isolating. I owe my sincere gratitude to the rare few back in middle school that did not overlook my presence and capabilities that I struggled to communicate. They empowered me to find the voice that you are hearing today. We wouldn’t have crossed our finish line if it weren’t for those who picked us up at our lowest, and also from what we learned can at times get even worse. Our advisers and mentors pushed us, demanded more, but patiently reassured us. Our friends listened to us, carried our fears, and celebrated our victories, big and small. And our families sacrificed for us, believing in us at times when we did not believe in ourselves. Failing meant learning that you cannot always do it alone and that it is okay to find and ask for help.
Lesson number three: facing and overcoming obstacles drives innovation. Dean Minor, the individuals sitting behind me are some of the best failers I know. Now, my English is much better than it used to be, but let me still emphasize: failers not failures (I know failer is not word, but I already told you that I am not a great speller). We now know to appreciate that if it were easy, someone else would have done it before us. To truly advance our knowledge and move our society forward, we must accept that there will be set-backs, that the path ahead will rarely be visible, and that we will fail before we succeed. And you have prepared us for that. After watching each other fail, bounce back, relentlessly chase hidden truths, and thrive, I am confident that there is no one better poised to re-write textbooks, discover the next cure, and change policy than my fellow classmates.
Graduating class of 2018, I’d like to end with some wishes as we begin our journey to become leaders in our respective fields. You are now scholars. You know how hard it is to uncover true knowledge, so never settle for anything less. Be daring and creative as you seek solutions to change and improve the world around you. When you discover something new, share it. Remember that you did not get your doctorate alone. Mentor, inspire, listen, and care for others in the same way people have done for you so that you can be here today. And finally, don’t be afraid to fail. Congratulations class of 2018.