John O'Shea '74 Remarks to Graduates

May 19, 2013

President Fox, honored guests, faculty and staff, and most of all, parents and graduates, thank you for allowing me to be part of this special day.

I’ve been in the lecture business a long time, but the truth is that this is a bit strange: a scientist with no data in sight!  However, in thinking about what I might say, I also thought of all the graduation speeches I’ve heard over the years and realized that there were almost none that I could remember.  Thankfully that took some pressure off.

So what I thought I would do was to tell you two quick stories from my St. Lawrence days and hope that they might resonate in some way.  

When I was at St. Lawrence in the 70’s, things were very different than they are now.  A war was raging, the stock market crashed, there was an oil crisis, rising unemployment and recession, and even “stagflation” (the combination of recession and inflation).  Really different; I’m sure you can’t relate. 

After my sophomore year I was hoping to get a job, but unsurprisingly, nothing came through.  Faced with the prospect of going home and hanging around, unemployed, I consider some alternatives.   One possibility was to stay in Canton and take a summer class.  The pickings were a bit slim, but Field Botany was an option.  Now, to tell the truth, as a biologist I was already a budding animal snob.  Dissecting sharks was cool, cardiac physiology was cool, but plants?  On the other hand, between hanging out at home unemployed and learning about plants, plants seemed the lesser evil.  So my friend and I pitched a tent for a month on a farm run by some St. Lawrence hippies in the name of Field Botany.  While this may not sound like a particularly scholarly endeavor, in reality it was brilliant.  It turns out on a farm, you are in a field surrounded by a lot of botany – who knew. But the other part that was brilliant was that John Green was teaching Field Botany. Most memorable was a field trip to the Adirondack bogs.  I had passed them many times without noticing a thing.  If forced to comment, I wouldn’t even have recognized them as bogs; I just would have called them swamps, not knowing the difference.  But what I learned from John Green was that bogs were an amazing ecosystem and even had insectivorous plants.  Now that’s just as cool as sharks. 

John’s passion for science was infectious, but equally important was the lesson that my notions of what was interesting or important really arose from ignorance and prejudice. And maybe that’s one of the more important aspects of education – the acute recognition of one’s ignorance.  Having spent my life in science and medicine, and learned a lot about immunology and autoimmune diseases, the truth is that the more I learn, the more aware I am of my ignorance and the need to learn more. 

My other story for you comes two years later when I was sitting at my graduation.  I had applied to 20 medical schools and been rejected by most of them. I would remind you that in the 70’s one way of not being drafted and fighting in rice paddies of Southeast Asia was to go to medical school - so medical school admission was pretty competitive!  With the economy in shambles and having no real plan beyond college, the prospect of leaving St. Lawrence was not all that enticing. After half listening to the graduation speeches, I packed up my car and headed home to enter the ranks of the unemployed once again.  

Over the next few weeks, my parents and I had some earnest discussions about what to do next. My mother asked if I was really committed to medicine and I said I was.  If so, she said “Why not go to summer school and take more upper level biology and biochemistry classes?”. I think I almost collapsed.  This was really the last thing I was thinking of doing after graduation.  Nonetheless, I went to Cornell that summer and took Advanced Cell Biology and Biochemistry.  More letters of rejection followed.

I finished summer school and went home yet again as an unemployed college graduate.  By September a few more rejection letters came, but I was still on the wait list at one school.  Of course I was sure my letter had to be lost, so I called and asked about re-submitting my application.  No, they said, I was still on the wait list.  “But when does school start?” I asked.  “Monday” was the answer.  Monday and Tuesday came and went with no word. In the meantime, I had applied to be a substitute teacher and I was called in to sub on Wednesday.  Halfway through the day, the principal, my former chemistry teacher, called me to the office.  “You’ve been accepted to medical school, but you need to catch a flight tonight.”  So I did. It turned out the reason behind my reprieve was that a student had decided to play pro football instead of going to medical school.  Fortunately for me, there were also two St. Lawrence students in my entering class who in all likelihood had lobbied hard and promised to take care of me – which they did.  And so I started my career as a physician – two days late and already many chapters behind. I’m tremendously fortunate to have had the privilege since then of making discoveries that are changing the way medicine is practiced, and I’m thrilled to be honored by my alma mater.  However, I hope I’ve also convinced you that my success was anything but pre-ordained. 

There was one graduation speech I do remember.  It was by the President of a college much like St. Lawrence, and his message was that life can only be understood by looking backward.  Life does indeed take some strange turns.  I certainly didn’t know my career would be influenced by a pro football player’s decision to forego medical school.  That said, every now and then, maybe it's a good idea to take advice from people who care about you – even if it’s really annoying and the last thing you want to hear. 

So congratulations on what is likely an exciting but bittersweet day as you consider your lives ahead and leaving many friends.  I have no doubt that you will forget what I have to say, but do take a minute to reflect on your time at St. Lawrence: it may be something as simple but profound as learning the difference between a bog and a swamp.

My best wishes to you and good luck as your journey continues.  And do expect the unexpected; it might even make sense later.