Faculty Baccalaureate Address 2016

Remarks as prepared.

Good evening, class of 2016! A warm welcome to you, your friends and family, President Pasquerella, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished guests, and my dear colleagues. I am honored to speak to you here tonight on this most special occasion, the eve of your graduation from Mount Holyoke College.

My name is Amy Camp, and I am a biologist. Biology is a science that spans many scales in size. From large ecosystems and populations to individual species or organisms like ourselves. From the tissues and organs within our bodies to the individual cells of which they are comprised. Smaller yet is the biology occurring within each cell: the DNA that serves as the genetic blueprint, directing the production of a menagerie of proteins that perform remarkable molecular and biochemical feats.

I have always found myself drawn to the smallest end of this scale. In my research lab, my students and I peer through a high-powered microscope to study a bacterium that is just a micron wide and a few microns long. That is so small that approximately 25,000 of these bacteria could fit, a single layer thick, on the top of a grain of salt. In the classroom, I perform interpretive dances to demonstrate how the tiniest of proteins fold into just the right three-dimensional shape to execute their function within the cell.

For most of human history, we had no idea that biology operated at such a small scale. That is, until a summer day in 1674, when Antonie van Leeuwenhoek used his hand-built microscope to look into a drop of pond water. He saw, twirling before his eyes, with dazzling colors, tiny organisms that he called “animalcules” or “little animals”—what we know now to be single-celled protozoa, algae, and bacteria. Can you imagine being the first person in human history to see a bacterium? As van Leeuwenhoek himself wrote to the Royal Society of London, “I confess I could not but wonder at it.”

Flash-forward nearly 350 years to the present day, and we are still struggling to appreciate that the vast majority of life on planet Earth is not visible to our eyes. All of the things we can see—the ferns and flowers, baboons and butterflies—reside, alongside us, on the tip of a tiny twig at the end of a small branch of the tree of life. Every other branch is teeming with incredibly diverse single-celled microbes (especially bacteria) that inhabit every nook and cranny of planet Earth, including on and in our own bodies. Some cause terrible infectious diseases, it is true. And the emergence of antibiotic resistant pathogens, exacerbated by the misuse and overuse of antibiotics, is a significant global health threat. But the vast majority of bacteria play positive roles in our health and the health of our planet. They digest our food, train our immune systems, and may even influence our brain chemistry. They can be found high in the atmosphere, nucleating the formation of ice particles within clouds and then falling to Earth suspended in the center of a single raindrop or snowflake. They are found as deep as we can dig into the bedrock, reproducing once every hundred or maybe even thousand years, raising philosophical questions of what it means to be alive.

These are things that I cannot but wonder at.

And somehow I’ve found myself here, tonight. What can I—someone who spends her time wondering at the incredibly small, the nearly invisible—possibly say about something as unmistakably big and perfectly visible as this? This being the momentous occasion of your graduation from Mount Holyoke College. This being our collective hopes and dreams for your futures on the other side of those gates. This being the joy and love and pride (and maybe a touch of sorrow and bewilderment) that fills this chapel to the brim and overflows and spills across our campus and into the world beyond. I most definitely do not need a high-powered microscope to see this.

Maybe I should do what many others will and point out (as if you didn’t already know) that there are enormous, complex, interconnected challenges facing our society and our planet. Racism. Sexism. Terrorism. Economic inequality. Climate change. Hunger. Infectious disease. I could remind you that your Mount Holyoke liberal arts education has prepared you to be bold in your quest for big solutions to these big problems. And I could tell you how confident I truly am that you will effect real, visible change and that, in the process, you will be transformed yourself.

Yet, as a biologist, I know that the big and visible are not the whole story. Not by a long shot. What about those in-between times when you’re not doing something bold, and the changes aren’t big? When you are taking only the smallest of steps toward your goals, or navigating unexpected detours? In the quest for big solutions to big problems, these moments when there is no visible progress may feel like wasted time or even failure.

This, class of 2016, brings me to my message for you tonight and for always: Never underestimate the small and invisible. “Big” and “bold” are indeed crucial, but they cannot materialize out of thin air. They are built, more often than not, upon small progress, small changes, small shifts in perspective. Small experiences and small interactions that nudge your trajectory ever so slightly, in turn positioning you to someday do something truly magnificent. Something that you might never have imagined.

And that’s not all. During these small, in-between moments, your perseverance, your engagement, and your compassion will create ripples that travel to far-away shores. They may lap against those beaches softly, comforting someone in need. Or they may pick up speed and momentum and hit like a tidal wave, rocking someone’s long-held assumptions about themselves, others, and the world.

Lastly, there is beauty and wonder in the smallest of moments, the smallest of things.

I for one can’t help imagining that tiny bacterium in the stratosphere, seeding the formation of a snowflake. The water molecules crystallize around it according to the laws of nature, producing a shape that has never been made before nor will ever be made again in the life of the universe. That snowflake falls to Earth on a crisp winter night along with a million others, crossing through the lamplight illuminating my path toward Cleveland Hall. I enter the building tired and thinking of my husband at home, putting our three daughters to bed. But my students await, eager with their questions the night before an exam. I don’t expect anything big or momentous to happen tonight. But maybe I will find a new way to explain a complicated concept so that, for one student, a jumble of disconnected details finally assemble neatly into place. Or perhaps for others, the camaraderie of the review session will strengthen their sense of belonging and replenish the energy stores needed for one or two more hours of studying.

You, my dear students, in case you haven’t already figured it out, are my ripples. Mount Holyoke’s ripples. You will travel to distant shores and accomplish very big things. Along the way, you will also find the power and meaning and even a bit of magic in the small things. We will be watching, with pride, and we will not be able to help but to wonder at it.

Thank you.