A Glimpse of Graduation

Archana Madhavan

Bachelor of Science, Molecular Biology

Good morning, everyone. First of all, let me extend a warm welcome to the faculty members who have given me the honor to stand before you today, to our family and friends visiting The University of Texas at Dallas to show their endless support, and, of course, to my fellow peers — the graduating class of 2011. Congratulations!

It is hard to believe that today marks the end of our undergraduate careers and represents the beginning of our futures. I know I am standing in the presence of future healthcare professionals, scientists and mathematicians, as well as performing and visual artists, writers and historians. Profile Photo of Archana MadhavanRegardless of what we do in the future, we are united by the fact that, henceforth, UT Dallas is our alma mater.

To be honest, I struggled for days trying to write this speech because I knew I would be addressing two seemingly different groups of people. My fellow science and math geeks: I understood you guys. We lugged around our organic chemistry textbooks, we spent late nights writing our biochemistry lab reports and puzzled over calculus together. Some of you have medicine, pharmacy, dentistry or optometry in your future. Some of you, like me, will be off to graduate school, ready to start a life of teaching, research and academia. For some of you, the path was clear. You were determined in your goal to go to medical school, and with the help of some incredible advisors, you prepared yourself for a career in health and medicine. But in my case, I chose to major in molecular biology, without a particular interest in medicine. Studying the response of cells to certain changes in the body and the biomolecules behind these types of communication attracted me far more than clinical work; at the same time, I had no real grasp of what it meant to be a scientist.

I will never forget the day I heard about Dr. Bonnie Bassler, a molecular biologist from Princeton University, who gave the 2009 Anson L. Clark Lecture here at UT Dallas. Her research sounded like something out of a science fiction novel — bacteria using molecules to talk to each other, eventually to perform a certain function and attain a common goal, a phenomenon known as quorum sensing. Immediately, I contacted a professor here at UT Dallas whose research also focused on bacterial communication. Many of you may not know Dr. Juan Gonzalez, but he was my mentor for two years and he was the one who first encouraged me to think about a career in research. I remember my first day in the lab: Honestly, I wondered if I had made the biggest mistake of my life. My hands were shaking so badly, I could barely hold a pipette, let alone light the Bunsen burner. I didn’t know the first thing about microbiology outside of what we had learned in class; I didn’t even know how to formulate an intelligent question. In the course of two years, thanks to my lab experience, I learned how to think, speak and write like a scientist. I wouldn’t be here today without the incredible support of Dr. Gonzalez and others; I learned so much from all of you, and I thank you for always believing in me. Research at UT Dallas has given me the opportunity to attend seminars and present talks at two conferences; it has funded my research through the Undergraduate Research Scholar Award and has allowed me to present during at our annual poster session. Most important, undergraduate research molded my nebulous, textbook interest in science into an aspiration to become a scientist.

Although I call myself a scientist now, I’ve never strayed far from the arts and humanities. Just last semester, I took a literature course about Jane Austen and wrote my first long English paper since high school. Few people also know that aside from science, my biggest passion has always been foreign language. I took Japanese for a year here at UT Dallas, while self-studying two other languages. When I’m not in the lab, I’m usually involved in small, amateur translation projects.

“Research at UT Dallas has given me the opportunity to attend seminars and present talks at two conferences; it has funded my research through the Undergraduate Research Scholar Award and has allowed me to present during at our annual poster session. Most importantly, undergraduate research molded my nebulous, textbook interest in science into an aspiration to become a scientist.”

Although the arts and sciences superficially seem so different, they are, in fact, very relevant to each other. After all, many early scientists and mathematicians were philosophers first. Francis Bacon, the so-called father of Empiricism, developed the scientific method, and from his works emerged William Harvey’s discovery of blood circulation. Rene Descartes, who summed up Rationalist thinking with his phrase “I think, therefore I am,” is also the father of the Cartesian coordinate system in geometry. Scientists may pretend ignorance of the arts and humanities, but in fact many scientists are themselves artists, musicians, linguists and historians. During a recent trip to Stanford, I actually spent a whole hour talking about the linguistic ancestry of East Asian languages with a professor who was also interested in foreign language.

Similarly, many artists scrutinize the human body just as closely as scientists. While biologists study the “how” and “why” of molecules and cells within the body, artists study the shadows and undulations of human flesh. While neuroscientists investigate the chemical basis of emotions, writers are bringing to life human emotions in fiction. Ultimately, we see that the dichotomy between the arts and the sciences is just a modern invention. Our lives can and will cross in the future.

Let me conclude by thanking my professors and family for their support and guidance. I hope that all of you can take a moment to think of who — or what — at our University encouraged you to be what you are today and what you plan to be in the future. I hope you are proud of yourself and of all of your accomplishments, my fellow graduates. Regardless of what might be printed on our degrees today, we are all graduates of The University of Texas at Dallas. Congratulations again, and good luck to all of us.

Archana Madhavan graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in molecular biology from the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. She is a recipient of an Academic Excellence Scholarship, and has been on the Dean’s List several times.

In addition to her class work, she worked in Dr. Juan Gonzalez’s lab studying bacterial communication. Madhavan received the Undergraduate Research Scholar Award for two years in a row and for the past two summers, she was selected to participate in the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Summer Research Academy at UT Dallas. After graduation, she plans to attend Stanford University to pursue a PhD in immunology.