"Whatsoever things are true, seek them."

Bachelor of science graduate and Rhodes scholar Yasmin Rafiei offers parting words to her fellow Spring '17 science grads

Yasmin Rafiei - 14 June 2017

We all look a little different today, but don't be fooled. Under every cap, and inside every gown, is a University of Alberta Faculty of Science student.

At first, it may be hard to recognize us. That's because we've molted. Around this time, we shed the skin we've worn for the past 4+ years: our UAlberta hoodies. We won't do anything drastic, like washing them, so don't be alarmed.

Most evident of all changes, however, is that we are all ready to embark on our next adventures. We are bachelor of science graduates and though we are distinct in many ways, we are united as we all cast our eyes to the horizon, step off University of Alberta soil, and take our first step into the wild together.

You may be asking yourself, what is the value of a bachelor of science degree in the real world?

To this I reply: we need science now more than ever. Within the last year, headlines touting "pseudoscience," "alternative facts," and "fake news" became mainstream. Behind the outbreak of mumps across Canada was the anti-vaccination movement denying reason. Behind the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement were the climate change deniers disregarding evidence. We need science now more than ever because dissent, criticism, and difference ought not be stifled, but engaged with openly.

The value of a science degree is not derived from the knowledge crammed into our heads. Our utility in the world will not include knowing the eight steps that make up the Kreb's cycle, or the chemical structure of all the amino acids, or the feedback cycles characterizing hormones secreted by the anterior pituitary gland. The value of a bachelor of science degree is that it has taught us to ask questions.

And the beauty of a question is that it can take you to the very precipice of human knowledge. When I took a research credit course this year, I remember theorizing why an experiment had not performed in the way our hypothesis predicted. My colleague's answer was surprising: "I don't know," he said. The literature also said nothing. The question that stumped us then became the foundation for my research experiment and for anyone who does research, you know you never end a project with one question answered, but with many more to explore.

When we ask a question, we seek truth. But seeking truth also means risking failure and we mustn't be ashamed of this. Between 1878 and 1880, in a quest to invent the first incandescent light bulb, Thomas Edison's lab mate bemoaned the 10,000 experimental failures it took to arrive there. Edison simply retorted: "I have not failed, I successfully discovered 10,000 elements that don't work." So, dispassionately examine every failure, whether it's a poor grade in a class or an unexpected result in an experiment. Ask others why they've failed as well, and surround yourself with peers and mentors who point out your missteps constructively because they will be your most valuable teachers. After all, we may only approach truth through a series of gradually more refined questions and successive experimentation, and failure is integral to this effort.

Fellow science graduates, even when truth is under attack, we must have faith in ourselves. As the 2017 graduates enter the world, we must remember that we are truth's protectors. We must remember that we guard humanity from corruption, injustice, and poverty. And in times of weakness, one need only look back home, to the University of Alberta's motto, for guidance. Quecumque vera, meaning "whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure…think on these things."

As I gaze around me, my fellow graduates, I have no doubt that amazing futures await us. So, dream with resolute idealism, go forth with relentless curiosity, and whatsoever things are true, seek them. Seek them not just for yourself, or for the University of Alberta, but for humanity, justice, equality, and freedom.

I'd like to propose a toast to the Spring 2017 graduates. Congratulations!