Below is the salute to the graduates, as prepared for delivery, by Sangeeta Bhatia SM ’93 PhD ’97, the John J. and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Engineering—and an HST alum and faculty member—for the Institute's 2021 Commencement, held online on June 4.
MIT PhD class of 2021, you did it!
You have managed to get over the finish line in a race with obstacles that none of us could have imagined when you started. Institute closing. Remote learning. Research on a shift schedule. In a year of deep social unrest. In a global pandemic. I hope you are so proud of that hood you have earned today. I can’t help but wonder if nothing again will ever be as hard as getting to this moment for each of you and your respective tribes.
I know, too, that even if you are feeling the joy of this celebration, you are probably feeling filled with doubt about your future. When I was in your shoes, graduating with my PhD from MIT, I was filled with doubt. I had been a planner, as I suspect many of you are. I had a five-year plan, a yearly plan, a semesterly plan. I even had a weekly plan I would write out on green index cards that fit in the pocket of my labcoat. I had been a student who plans for almost 25 years.
So when I was in the moment you’re in right now, without a clear plan for the future, I had no idea what to think about what would come next, or exactly how to plan for that.
I did know a few things. I knew I wanted to make the world a better place. I knew I wanted a life outside of work. And I knew I had fallen in love ... with the liver — an underappreciated organ with gorgeous microarchitecture that busily performs many functions essential for life while it sits quietly tucked up under our rib cage.
While I did graduate to plan, in the next five years, many things would happen that I could never have planned. I would marry a Canadian computer scientist, finish my medical degree, move to California to live by the beach, become a professor, learn yoga, try surfing and fail at pottery.
I would continue to study the liver as I had done in graduate school. Not because it was the strategic thing to do but because I was too in love with it to give it up. I had been using microfabrication tools to study the liver. By then the field of microfabrication would give birth to the field of nanotechnology and I would get swept up in the power of what tiny technologies could do for medicine. And because I was maybe the only liver-lover in a tsunami of new technology, I could see solutions others might have missed- preventing liver disease by testing drug safety on tiny microlivers, diagnosing liver disease with nanoparticles instead of a needle biopsy, and treating liver disease with a 3D printed tissue instead of a transplant.
And in the next five years that work would bring me back to my hometown where I could raise my two girls near my parents and back to MIT and where they could grow up running down the infinite corridor on the way to mommy’s lab. I would get to befriend my feminist hero, become a serial entrepreneur, and perform a TED talk on Broadway. The one thing I’ve learned for sure: All of the best things that have happened to me were not on that green index card.
But when I was in the moment you’re in right now, I was filled with doubt. And here’s a little secret: I’m still filled with doubt. I know I want to make the world a better place. I know I want a life outside of work. And yet the future is uncertain. My point is that it’s OK not to know. Just keep going.
Trust yourself to figure it out and don’t let the uncertainty weigh you down. Maybe you’ve found your liver- the thing that really drives you. And maybe you haven’t. Maybe your field doesn’t even exist yet. It’s all OK. Look at what you’ve done already. You have managed to drink water from the firehouse. You conquered graduate level classes at the ’Tute, passed qualifying exams, and you did original research. You walked through the darkness- where you wonder not only whether there is light at the end of the tunnel of your research question but also whether anyone including you will care when you find it. And you have become the person who knows more about your area than anyone in the entire world. That’s pretty incredible. That deep expertise, the ability to solve a problem with no roadmap, that will serve you well in life. So if you don’t know anything else, now you know you can solve unsolved problems again and again and again.
As you go off into the world, I would like to leave you with the words of one of my favorite artists, Lin Manuel Miranda who says “Cheers. Cheers from the older version of you. Who remembers the very moment you are in right now. And is grinning from ear to ear, because you have no idea about the wonders ahead.”
Class of 2021. On behalf of the faculty, we salute you. Congratulations.