Graduate School Commencement address

Author: Thomas C. Quinn


Father Jenkins, Provost Burish, Dean Sterling, members of the faculty of the Graduate School, distinguished guests, family and friends, and most importantly, to the graduates of the Class of 2012 Graduate School of Notre Dame: Congratulations!

I am deeply honored to be with you today on this special occasion. It is a personal privilege and responsibility to address you on your graduation from the University of Notre Dame. I also wish to personally thank the University and the faculty for nominating me for the Distinguished Alumnus Award. I am truly humbled by this award, which I will always cherish. I cannot thank you enough for according me this honor.

Notre Dame is a very special place for me, and for my whole family. My father was a graduate of the Class of 1933; my uncle, the Class of 1938; and my son Sean, a graduate of the School of Architecture in 2003. I look back upon my years at Notre Dame as both an undergraduate and as a graduate student with the fondest of memories.

And so, when I was invited to give this commencement address, I tried to draw inspiration from my commencement speaker when I was sitting where you are. Well, that was a big mistake! For the life of me, I cannot remember who the speaker was, or what he or she said on that eventful day. But then I realized that this event today is about you, and your future. I am sure that you have spent time thinking about your plans for the next year and beyond. Or, you might have been thinking about completing your thesis and just making it to today! Either is OK because what I want to share with you is that some of the most important moments of life are those that you cannot predict or plan. I can guarantee that you will be confronted with random events in your life, as I was, and it will be the choices you make that will influence subsequent events.

Thus I chose “Carpe Diem” or “Seize the Day” as my message. The past as a graduate student will recede, and the future, as a professional, lies before you. Your life as a Notre Dame student will morph into being a lifelong student, always learning and experiencing life. You will be faced with opportunities, challenges, successes and failures, and the decisions you make today and thereafter will continually shape who you are. When I reflect back 40 years ago, I would not have taken these comments very seriously, but in retrospect it is very clear to me that my career and personal life was shaped by events that were presented to me here at Notre Dame and afterward.

There are four general topics that I would like to discuss under this theme of “Carpe Diem.” The first topic is Family. Thank your family today and afterward for their love and support. As it was in my family, my grandparents during the Depression sacrificed tremendously so that my father could attend the University of Notre Dame. Likewise, my father did the same for me, and then I, for my children. Your family has made sacrifices (not all financial) so that you could be accorded the best education. “Seize today” to thank them, honor them, and love them.

In my case, I don’t think that I truly thanked my parents enough. My father and I always shared the excitement of an ND football game, and I knew how proud he was that I went to Notre Dame. During my years here, there was another Tom Quinn who was an All-American football player. In fact, we often got each other’s mail. One day I received a letter addressed to me from the NFL drafting me to play for a NFL football team. Of course, this letter was intended for the other Tom Quinn, who had simultaneously received my letter of acceptance to medical school. Now, when I say “seize the day,” it does not always mean taking every opportunity that comes along. Either of us could have taken the path offered at that moment, I joining the NFL and being crushed on my first day, or he going to medical school and becoming a famous sports surgeon. But we traded letters and the rest is history. My father, on the other hand, liked to tell folks that I was drafted by the NFL and turned it down to pursue loftier goals in life!

Passion is a key ingredient to success, and support from loved ones to pursue that passion is often unspoken. When I began my years as a graduate student, I developed a passion about tropical medicine. I wanted to understand how these diseases were spread, and so I started studying the genetics of a mosquito responsible for spreading malaria to millions of people worldwide. Of course my mother did not understand why her son had chosen such a rare career of working on insects. She would often say, “Are you still working on mosquitoes?” But little did she know that this was shaping my interest in the field of tropical diseases. When I finally went off to medical school, she was of course relieved, until I started my fellowship and started working on sexually transmitted diseases. What was she going to tell her friends now? That her son had moved from studying mosquitoes to studying sex? How embarrassing it was for her! But whether she liked what I was working on or not, she always supported my passion for my work and my excitement about global diseases, which were to be later shaped by a new epidemic called AIDS.

So follow your passion even if the choices you make seem odd or unconventional to others. To the parents in the audience, your absolute support and love is what your son or daughter needs most as they pursue their own interests and career, even if it seems different from your pathway.

The second topic I want to discuss is mentorship. I owe a debt of gratitude to one faculty member here who reached out, guided and literally launched me into my career. George Craig, professor of biology, was a dedicated mentor to me and many other students. He was literally a very large man in both body and in life. His enthusiasm about science was truly infectious and he ignited that spark in me about the exciting life of parasites. He died in 1995 and, like my parents, I don’t feel that I had taken the opportunity to reach out and thank him for the guidance and education that he offered me. Mentorship in a professional career is probably one of the most important attributes that is experienced, but is never really taught. Think about the professors that you have worked with and how they have guided you in one way or another. I am absolutely sure that there are at least one or more professors who have made an indelible mark on your life. George Craig was such a person to me, and I honor him today!

Mentoring is also about giving. Your future experiences will offer you opportunities to mentor others, so remember to dedicate yourself to mentoring others in your professional field. I have tried to instill in myself that same nurturing quality that a mentor can be to other individuals. So “seize this day” to thank the faculty for what they have done to help you reach this wonderful moment of your career, and later offer that same type of guidance to others.

The third topic I would like you to consider is collaboration. In this day of technological innovations, success in one’s career is often dependent upon partnerships and collaboration in which individuals work together to reach a common goal. This may vary by profession, but in many fields the teamwork approach usually results in the best successes. On this point, I would like to share with you another interesting story. My roommate here at Notre Dame was Eric Wieschaus, and when I started my work on the genetics of mosquitoes, Eric had already decided to work on Drosophila, the common fruit fly. He delved into the genetics of Drosophila and we would enter into lively conversations about the relative merits of working on one insect vs. another. I tell you this story because 15 years after we graduated, Eric received the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology (1995) for genetic control of embryonic development using Drosophila as a model. So never underestimate the influence people around you will have on your life, because you may never know how that connection will be important in the future.

The fourth and final topic I would like to discuss is how “Carpe Diem” can influence your career, as long as you stay true to your passions and learn from your failures. These are indeed uncertain times in terms of employment with a continuing recession that is global in nature. They were also uncertain times when I graduated with rising inflation, the Vietnam War, the draft, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the civil rights protests. Uncertainty is the constant, persistent nature of life. Random events of the day will clearly influence choices that you make, whether they are job opportunities, or lack thereof, or how unpredictable events, such as the occurrence of a new disease, a natural disaster or military conflict, will affect you. No matter what happens during these courses of events, remember to pursue your passion as best as you can.

During the turmoil of the late ’60s and early ’70s, I took my new knowledge that I had gained here in parasitology and went off to medical school, continuing to work on malaria through a collaboration between George Craig and myself. I later pursued a research career at the National Institutes of Health, once again working on malaria in non-human primates. However, I realized that I missed patient interactions and desire to heal which I had gained in medicine. I wanted to learn more about how I could impact these tropical diseases in a more meaningful way. And so I elected to spend two years at the University of Washington learning how to study the epidemiology and transmission of human diseases. The patience of my family in supporting me in this decision cannot be underestimated!

As I completed my training, a new fatal disease suddenly appeared called AIDS. It started out affecting only a small handful of men in California and New York, but by the end of one year, it had spread to blood transfusion recipients, hemophiliacs, injecting drug users and to children born to women afflicted with the disease. Cases also started occurring among Haitians living in the U.S. One day my director approached me and asked if I could fly down to Port au Prince, Haiti, to investigate the disease there. Having completed all this training in epidemiology and tropical diseases, I jumped at the opportunity and flew there almost immediately. Finally I was headed to investigate a new disease in the tropics! “Seize the Day” — for this was what I had really trained for!

Unfortunately, when I arrived I was shocked to find that hundreds of individuals lay dying from this disease. Totally depressed and dismayed by the degree of death and dying, I charged forward to characterize this epidemic as best as I could. My investigations led me to Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I found not hundreds, but thousands of dying cases of AIDS. My initial findings on AIDS transmission, etiology and even linkage to malaria brought all my training full circle. Unknowingly, all that training had been fortuitous in providing me with the basics of how to study the spread of a disease, which led me to subsequent investigations in 26 other countries. Now in retrospect it is clear I was witnessing the evolution and spread of the worst epidemic of our time.

During those early years I was faced with failure upon failure in terms of efforts to control or even treat this disease. But it was from these failures that ultimately led to the sentinel discoveries of treatment and biomedical means of prevention. The lesson I take from these personal stories is to not let failures dissuade you from pursuing your passion or quest for new knowledge. Use your failures for future discovery! Often, the new knowledge that underlies future success lies only within the failures you experience. Believe in yourself and your ability to find success no matter how many failures you endure. Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

Like many of you today, I was not really sure where my education and training would lead me. I have experienced a life that could not have been predicted, and was influenced by serendipity and random events. My life has come full circle from those days here at Notre Dame and from the fields in Haiti, Congo, India, Uganda and elsewhere. When I first started studying mosquitoes, who would have guessed that this is where it would lead me? But there is a common thread that ties these initial studies and subsequent experiences together.

I’m still following that thread today as my life continues to evolve. My current interests in global health are a part of my committed response to dealing with the unfair inequities that I have witnessed over the years in caring for dying individuals that were often isolated and stigmatized, when what they needed was a kind and empathetic touch. My passion today is that we can make a difference in the lives of others worldwide, and I believe that same dedication is reflected in the passion of many other scientists, activists, religious and community leaders who are resilient and are leading the charge to help those in greatest need, like the achievements of tomorrow’s honoree, Ken Hackett and Catholic Relief Services.

In closing, the future will hold many surprises for you as it did for me. Pursue those opportunities with enthusiasm and passion, and meet the challenges of the day with determination. It will be your ability to respond to those opportunities and challenges that will make a difference in your life and for those around you. As graduates of this great University, you are in a privileged setting embarking upon the careers of your life. Take advantage of this opportunity to make a difference, “seize the day,” and pursue your dreams and your desires. Abraham Lincoln said, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

Congratulations to you all, graduates, families, loved ones and faculty. Good luck to you and may God bless you. Thank you.

Thomas C. Quinn, MD, M.Sc., ‘69, ‘70

University of Notre Dame Graduate School, May 19, 2012