Charles Aquadro '75

Remarks to Graduates - May 22, 2016

I am deeply honored and gratified to be here today and participate in this wonderful celebration of your graduation. St. Lawrence is a very special place that helped me identify my academic passion, and gave me opportunities to be responsible for my own successes, and failures. My time as a student at St. Lawrence was also enriched by many amazing people, including my classmate Bill Fox, who is now the university President. Most importantly, in my freshman year I met the person who would become my life partner, love and wife of 41 years, Wendy Sholl Aquadro.

St. Lawrence was my top choice for a college based on my pre-application visit. I just felt at home and the students, faculty and staff all seemed so genuinely friendly. I found out that this impression was accurate! I arrived fall of 1971 eager to pursue a degree in chemistry. That was my first failure in college. Turned out that I wasn’t good at college chemistry. So, if not chemistry, then what?  I’d grown up with a strong love of nature and the outdoors, as well as a desire to understand how things worked. I loved to do experiments and test various ideas. I give my parents so much credit for fostering my curiosity.

I found a similar supportive series of faculty mentors at St. Lawrence when, realizing a chemistry major was not for me, I convinced Ken Crowell to allow me to take his class in ornithology.  I already knew birds pretty well, but Ken was still taking a risk since I had not taken the pre-requisite intro biology courses. A major part of the ornithology class was to design a field experiment and carry it out. I was amazed: Could it be that what I loved doing could actually be part of a class?  I thrived in that class and in that research project, and dove into advanced biology courses after that. I got involved in research projects with Professor John Green to track Coyote’s in the northern Adirondacks, carried out genetic studies of protein differences between coyotes and dogs in Professor Tom Budd’s lab, and explored the effects of patchy habitats on the ecology of mice on the golf course with Professor Ken Crowell. I was almost stopped short though at the start of my senior year when I was told that to graduate I had to compete the two semester freshman biology course. So I took the course as a senior, and it was actually a great experience.

Starting my junior year, I was also struggling with what to do after I graduated. I’d come to love biology and it seemed that research and grad school might be an excellent path. But my family was largely of an engineering/business bent so I was conflicted. It was my St. Lawrence Professors Crowell and Green who helped clarify my thinking by encouraging me to think about what I loved and was passionate about, and to try to follow that path, whatever it was. So I chose biology and a career in science and teaching, and have found it to be a terrific and rewarding career. And I was incredibly fortunate that my parents believed in me and encouraged me to do my best at it, even though they did not initially understand my choice. It’s not been easy at times, and I’ve faced diverse challenges, but my passion for biology, genetics in particularly, and for teaching and mentoring students has sustained me in a way I never could have imagined 41 years ago when I was sitting where you are today.

Along the way I’ve come to appreciate several things that I learned at St. Lawrence.

Lesson 1: “Don’t let what you cannot do, prevent you from doing what you can do.”  In my case, I also found out my freshman year that I wasn’t good at calculus. But my interests led me to want to understand how genetic variation passed down over generations and what factors shaped the rich genetic diversity within and between each of us and all living organisms.  Much of my work and the analysis of my data required a lot of mathematics. I was great at experiments, but I wasn’t very good at math.  But I turned out to be really good at conceptualizing complex genetic processes in ways that allowed me to productively collaborate with individuals who were talented in math.  The results from these and related studies have been important in revealing how organisms adapt to their environments, in using DNA in forensics to solve crimes, and in the incorporation of genetic variation into what is becoming known as Precision Medicine.

Lesson 2:  “Think about how you can be importantnot how important you are.” That was the motto of the director of Dining Services, Jack Taylor, when I was a student. For me, it has served as a constant reminder to reach out and help others, and to give my very best, regardless of my actual role.

Lesson 3: My four years at St. Lawrence included academic and personal successes, failures, and tragedy. I had real trouble with chemistry and calculus, which led me to struggle academically my freshman year.  I learned it’s not that you fail, but that you get up and get back in the game, and learn from your mistakes. It’s up to you now. Nobody else. You are now college graduates. You don’t have a perfect education, or perfect skills. But you have an education and skills to be life long learners. Use them to the best of your ability! 

Lesson 4: The theme of my college application essay was Mark Twain’s saying: “Don't let schooling interfere with your education”.  I believe that even more strongly now after a career as a university professor. As an undergrad at St. Lawrence some of my most meaningful experiences came from being on the Ski Team and teaching skiing at the Snow Bowl, being a Resident Assistant in Sykes freshman dorm, and my diverse research experiences. Classrooms are only a small part of schooling, and education is something you will continue in many forms throughout your life. Education happens with every encounter you have as a person, and every success, and failure, you have as you pursue your life. Pay attention, and you will amplify on your St. Lawrence education is so many enriching ways.

Lesson 5:  “Listen to the wind.”  Our beloved Botany professor John Green and his wife Janet gave Wendy and I a carved wooden duck decoy as a wedding present with those words inscribed on the bottom.  “Listen to the wind” to me has always meant listen to your heart, your real passions.  Note that it does not advise “Follow the wind”, but rather, listen to the wind. You then decide which direction is right for you. Also pay attention to what you really enjoy, and what seems just logical to you. It might not be on the path you are pursing, but it may be alerting you to a new path that might be even more rewarding, and successful. 

As you leave here today and disperse to your new horizons, I really urge you to listen to the wind.
Don’t let anyone else tell you what you are hearing…

Listen to what you hear.

Follow your heart.

Congratulations graduates and parents!