Center News Magazine: Freeman A. Hrabowski, III's 2009 Academic Convocation Address

Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Freeman Hrabowski Freeman Hrabowski

I am from Birmingham, which is the Deep South. My campus is in Baltimore, which we call the Upper South. And I should say for those of you who are not from the South that my great-great-grandfather was also a slave master, and his name was Hrabowski. That is the history of my last name, and it’s important to know one’s history and one’s story.

I am deeply honored to be here today. Harold [Memorial Sloan Kettering President Harold Varmus] is my colleague and friend, and Harold is one of our donors. We call him the Godfather of the Meyerhoff Program. [The Meyerhoff Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was founded in 1988 by Dr. Hrabowski with the support of Baltimore philanthropists Robert and Jane Meyerhoff. While competitively open to undergraduates from all backgrounds planning to pursue doctoral studies in science and engineering, its primary focus is on underrepresented minority students.] Harold was very supportive financially through the years and in helping to connect us with Nobel laureate Tom Cech and other people. [Thomas Cech, awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1989, was president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute from 2000 to 2009.]

What I’d like to do for the graduates today, is to talk a few minutes about the Meyerhoff Program and what we’ve done. But more important than that, I want to give you a sense of what I consider important in looking at the world as you go to the next phase in your professional careers.

I want you, first of all, to savor this moment. It’s a moment when we are acknowledging people who’ve received awards and people who’ve completed degrees. It is usually our practice in life to reach a goal and to move quickly to the next — and even on an evening like this, to be thinking about what’s next and “what am I doing?” and all the challenges. But I’m encouraging you right now to take a few minutes to savor this moment and just think about all that you’ve been able to accomplish, and that it didn’t happen overnight — that there was a lot of work and a lot of people who helped you to get to where you are.

In the spirit of Southerners, I will tell you a story. My grandmother always appreciated the fact that I loved mathematics. As a child, I was always a fat little math nerd. And my mother and father did not want me to be a fat kid, so they were always encouraging me not to eat a lot of dessert. But my grandmother, on the other hand, felt that the fatter the cheeks, the healthier the child.

So my grandmother would make two pies, two blueberry pies — one for the family and one for Freeman. And my mother would be so upset with her because I would sit there eating this blueberry pie, doing my math, and blueberry pie would be everywhere. But my grandmother would be so happy, and she would say, “Just enjoy yourself.” I can still taste that pie — doing my math problems and eating that pie. Now that’s savoring the moment. Forty-five years later I can feel it. And when I’m depressed, I think about that pie and my math problem, and I’m happy. So I want you to savor this moment because, as you know, every moment won’t be this great. Challenges will come along.

I want to talk a minute about someone who inspires me, and it will tie together in a moment. Bill Fahey is a friend who is on the Marguerite Casey board with me in Seattle. [The Marguerite Casey Foundation is dedicated to creating a movement of working families advocating in their own interests.] I’ve gotten to know him well, and I’m fascinated by his story. Bill had been Director of CDC [Centers for Disease Control] under two presidents. He’s a phenomenal man who has been in public health for over four decades, was responsible for leading the CDC’s smallpox eradication program, and for helping to eradicate guinea worm and polio and measles. And he always talks about having been inspired by Albert Schweitzer when he was a child and then by an uncle who had been a missionary in Africa.

But the story that fascinates me — really fascinates me — is the story about his helping to eradicate river blindness in Africa. Merck & Company had a drug that was used to treat heartworm in dogs. It was Bill Fahey who convinced Merck to give the drug away in Africa. They said they would do it if he would be responsible for the distribution, for the handling of it. And he did.

Now at that time, as I understand it, there were villages where no man over 40 could see. They’d all gone blind. But Bill pulled it off and was instrumental in eradicating river blindness and other diseases. Some would even say he really started the pharmaco-philanthropy initiative. Now, he never likes to take credit. But when he goes to Africa, you would think he was a superstar. People come out in big numbers, all along the roads. And he’s so humble about it all.

Well, to complete the story, Bill is now partially blind. He can only see through slits. And when I’ve asked him about it, he says something that is amazing and so reflective of who he is. He says, “Freeman, the world is so big that just being able to see a little of it allows me to see so much. Seeing it this way, you really appreciate it. You really do.” He says all this with great authenticity, and I think that he probably sees more of the world than we do.

I will tell you that about Bill Fahey because he was influenced by his childhood experiences, as were many people. Sixty-three years ago, Albert Einstein wrote these words — and I always surprise people when I’m talking about minorities in science and I go to Albert Einstein. Some of you may have read the recent histories of Einstein that focus on the fact that back in the ’40s he was questioning why we were excluding so many people. Many historians didn’t want to write about that because Einstein was considered the perfect physicist, and the perfect physicist should not have been criticizing America, so they didn’t talk about this part.

This is what he said: “A large part of our attitude toward things is conditioned by opinions and emotions which we unconsciously absorb as children from our environment. In other words, it is tradition which makes us what we are. We but rarely reflect how relatively small compared with the powerful influence of tradition is the influence of our conscious thought upon our conduct and our convictions. It would be foolish, of course, to despise tradition, but with our growing self-consciousness and increasing intelligence, we must begin to control tradition and assume a critical attitude toward it if human relations are ever to be better.

Now it seems to me that Bill Fahey understood the need to think about his values, his dreams, his convictions, and what he saw as the way the world was, compared to what he thought about how the world might be. He wasn’t willing to accept the fact that millions of people could be suffering from diseases when there were ways of figuring out how to give them the benefit of certain drugs.

So what I want you to think about for a moment is your story — how did you get here tonight, and are you looking at the world with an eye that says, “But how can it be different?” I suspect you are.

I. I. Rabi, another Nobel laureate whom I’ve studied, said that when he was growing up in New York, all of his friends’ parents would ask them every day, “‘What did you learn in school today?’ But not my Jewish mother. My mother would say, ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’” And, he said, the practice of her doing that made him the person he became. He was being encouraged to use his curiosity.

Obviously this is what you’ve learned to do: To ask good questions. And what I want to ask you to do is to continue to ask good questions in science, but also to ask good questions about the world. For me, growing up in Birmingham was a rich experience. I was with wonderful parents in a wonderful community. But at the same time, the larger, outside world was constantly telling me that I was second-class. We went to schools that were inferior. We were given hand-me-down books. We couldn’t go into the movie theater. We couldn’t drink out of the water fountain. And yet my parents kept saying one thing: “You don’t have time to be a victim. Just get the knowledge, and you’ll be okay.

And I’ll never forget thinking throughout my childhood experiences, and even into graduate school at the University of Illinois, “Why don’t I see anybody else in my math classes looking like me, either as a professor or as a student?” And it was at that point that I began asking the question, in about 1968 or ‘69, “What can I do to have more people of color excited about math and science, and how can I convince the world that people can come from any background and become the best?

That was the question for me, and it continues to be just that. The fact is that only about 2 percent of the PhDs in science and engineering each year go to blacks and about 2 percent to Hispanics, and a much smaller percentage to Native Americans, as you might expect. And the big question for my campus — and what Harold helped with — was what could we do to motivate students to try to achieve higher than a C in organic chemistry, and move them to the point where they did so well that, quite frankly, they’d want to go to grad school, they’d want to get MD/PhDs?

What we learned — and this is what I want you to know, because you are the researchers — was that one fact is more important than any other: It takes researchers to produce researchers. It can’t be some side program. It has to be the researchers themselves who say, “We want to be involved in this and pull in all kids to get involved in this work, because the world has people from all kinds of backgrounds.” Nearly one out of every three Americans is going to be Hispanic by 2050. Don’t we need some Hispanic researchers? Of course we do.

So my challenge to you is to think about how you can, in the midst of doing your research, pull in other people — more women, more people of color, more people from low-income backgrounds — and get them excited about asking the good questions, using the knowledge that they have. It can make all the difference in the world.

Samuel Beckett, an Irish novelist and playwright, wrote a book in which the main character was Malloy. Malloy studied the dancing of bees. You know, when bees are dancing, they’re communicating. And he said this: “Here is something I could study all my life and never understand.

The significance is that he said it with great rapture. Malloy was absolutely fascinated, because the more he studied the dancing of the bees, the more he began to understand how they communicated. But the more he understood, the more he realized there was so much more to know. There’s the point of seeing: If we can understand that as we look into the world, as we ask the questions, as we keep learning and growing and developing, there’s just so much more to know — and we need to pull more and more people into that process of asking the questions. We can then move to the next level.

Today my campus leads the country among predominantly white universities in sending students of color, particularly African Americans, on to earn MD/PhDs. This year we probably have about 15 around the country — from Duke to Stanford — finishing MD/PhDs. I’d never seen it before. But we believed, my science colleagues and I, that if we could pull these students into the research, expect the most from them, help them understand that this is noble work and we appreciate the value of hard work and brain power — to get them to develop those values together — it could happen. And it’s happening. So, as a beginning step, it’s a dream fulfilled. I’m very glad to say that Cornell is one of the places now modeling after the Meyerhoff Program — Cornell, the University of Michigan, and other places. That’s my dream. But I ask you to share in the notion of reaching out to be even more inclusive.

I close with words that were given to me when I kept trying to understand why people looked at me and thought, “Second class.” Because I kept saying, “I work as hard as anybody else!” And they kept saying — my parents, my teachers, my minister — they kept saying, “You don’t have time to be a victim. Just work to be the best that you can be and keep seeking the truth.

And here are the words. They’re from Olive Schreiner, a social-political activist in the late 19th century. She said, “Now, you seek after truth. If anything I teach you be false, may you throw it from you and go on to richer knowledge and deeper truth than I have ever known. If you become a man of thought and learning, may you never fail to tear down with your right hand what your left hand has built up if through years of thought and study you see it at last not to be founded on that which is. If you become an artist, may you never paint with a brush any picture of external life other than as you see it. If you become a politician, may no success for your party or even love of your nation ever lead you to tamper with reality. In all your circumstances, my child, may you seek after truth and cling to that as a drowning man in a stormy sea who flings himself on a plank and clings to it knowing that whether he sinks or swims, it is the best that he has. Die poor, unknown, a failure, but shut your eyes to nothing that seems to them to be the truth.

Congratulations to all of you. And thank you.