Rebecca Richards-Kortum encouraged the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s largest-ever graduating class to find people who believe in them and let no setback deter them.
Richards-Kortum, Malcolm Gillis University Professor of Bioengineering at Rice University and a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” recipient, delivered the address “The Next Start Line" during the undergraduate commencement ceremonies May 4 at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
She began by saying that as an amateur marathon runner, she thinks a lot about starting lines and especially finish lines. She recalled earning her bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics from Nebraska 34 years ago.
“I know that despite the fancy stage and the shiny diplomas and medals, it’s a little bit terrifying to come to the finish line,” she said. “Just when you figure out the course, you have to find another race to run. How do you find those things that you care about so deeply you want to invest your whole self?”
Richards-Kortum told of a time during her sophomore year of college when she considered changing her major from physics to mechanical engineering. When she met with then-physics chair Dave Sellmyer, he simply asked her if she liked physics. When she said yes, he told her not to switch majors and invited her to conduct research in his lab. The first-generation college student worked in his lab for two years and grew to love research.
“Eventually, I found my way to bioengineering and the work that I do today,” she said. “But I don’t think I would be here with you today if Dave Sellmyer hadn’t taken 20 minutes to meet with me and say: ‘Come, run this race with us. I think you might like it.’”
Richards-Kortum told the graduates to avoid narrow-minded, unimaginative people, find people who believe in them and, in turn, support others.
“Believing in people is the most powerful fuel in the universe. And the great thing about this super-power is we all possess it,” she said. “Dave Sellmyer gave it to me, and I am giving it to you. Graduates: Use your super-powers … to inspire the people around you to do their best.”
Still, Richards-Kortum said, there are times when running feels awful and one wants to quit.
She shared an experience she had about 18 months ago when she and a team of engineers, doctors and entrepreneurs entered the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition. Teams described how they would solve a critical problem for the chance at a $100 million prize. Her team pitched a plan to end preventable newborn death in Africa by delivering affordable new technologies to hospitals throughout the continent.
Of more than 2,000 entries, Richards-Kortum’s team was one of four finalists. The team gave a strong final presentation, and she felt confident. However, the team failed to win the grand prize and was offered a $15 million consolation prize instead.
Richards-Kortum said she was so crushed that she adopted two dogs to help her feel better.
“Of course, I knew it was ridiculous to be so sad about winning $15 million,” she said. “But we cared so deeply about solving this problem, and we knew we needed more than $15 million to do it. As a runner, it felt like we got to what we thought was the finish line and somebody said, ‘Oh, you still have six more miles to go.’”
Richards-Kortum said that everyone knows the hardest part of a marathon is the final six miles. During her first two marathons, she had to take walk breaks starting at Mile 20. But on her third try, she was determined to break through the wall. She asked her daughter to create a playlist to motivate her. Bolstered by an encouraging message from her daughter and the Husker fight song “Hail Varsity,” she kept running and made her time goal.
“I discovered that this great university, it has become part of my DNA,” she said. “It is there to motivate me to a personal best whenever I need it the most. And now, it is also part of your DNA.”
Richards-Kortum said the weekend after she got the bad news about the $100 million, she laced up her shoes and went for a long run, again listening to her daughter’s voice and “Hail Varsity.”
“I remembered I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska,” she said. “And now you — we — are graduates of the University of Nebraska. And we are people who do hard things. We are people who do hard things even when other people tell us no. I remembered we are part of a team that does not give up, even when the odds are against us.”
Richards-Kortum’s team returned to work and has multiplied that $15 million. The plan is being implemented, and the first newborn technology is in place in more than 34 countries.
Richards-Kortum said the graduates had put in the training to cross the finish line with pride and reminded them to run the next race with purpose.
“In your time here, you’ve acquired the courage to tackle big problems, the knowledge to develop solutions, and the wisdom to implement those solutions, and to do it with kindness and decency,” she said. “And the world has never needed that more.”
Richards-Kortum also received Nebraska’s Charles Bessey Medal during the morning ceremony. The award, which recognizes distinguished achievement in the sciences or fields grounded in the sciences, was presented by Chancellor Ronnie Green.
The university conferred 3,490 degrees — a record number — during commencement exercises at the arena and the Lied Center for Performing Arts. The graduates are from 48 countries; 40 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico; and more than 270 Nebraska communities.
Green presided over the ceremonies.
For the first time, undergraduate commencement was split into two ceremonies — one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. The sesquicentennial graduation also included the debut of redesigned robes and regalia featuring the Nebraska “N.”
“In celebration of the university’s 150th anniversary, we are unveiling Nebraska’s own special regalia that henceforth will be worn by all of our graduates with pride in their great university,” Green said. “All of our undergraduates are wearing a red stole which is called the ‘gratitude stole’ and provides them an opportunity to share it with an important person who has been influential in their academic career.”
In addition, all degrees awarded during 2019 will include a special N150 logo.
Sherri Jones, dean-designate of the College of Education and Human Sciences and chair of the Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders at Nebraska, gave the address at the graduate and professional degree ceremony May 3 at the arena. Adam Foss, founder and executive director of Prosecutor Impact, spoke to the law graduates May 4 at the Lied Center.
The May graduating class earned 696 new graduate and professional degrees and 2,794 new baccalaureate degrees. The university has awarded 293,592 degrees since it was founded in 1869.