December 15, 2019

Colwell to Purdue grads: How you change the world

Note to journalists: Rita Colwell, Purdue University alumna and distinguished professor and researcher, made these remarks during Purdue’s West Lafayette commencement ceremonies Dec. 15.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — President Daniels, honored guests, distinguished faculty, staff, family and friends, and especiallly members of the Purdue University class of 2019:

Thank you for that all too generous introduction. If Mark Twain was right when he said a person can live a month on one compliment, then you have just assured me of immortality.

Let me also assure you that I will not violate the commandment that commencement addresses should be very brief. You may have heard the old adage: “Be sincere, be brief, and be seated.” Those are my marching orders today.

Let me first extend my sincere congratulations to the graduates and their families. You have worked long and hard to get here — please take a moment to savor this proud moment! For the past few years, you have been surrounded by, and submerged in, your college studies, but keep in mind that less than 8% of the world population ever attains a college degree.

I have titled my remarks, “How You Change the World.” I know that sounds like a lofty and unrealistically ambitious goal. Likely few of us would think of announcing such power or prescience. But we all have our passion. Some of us want to write novels, some want to heal others, some want to train horses, and some of us want to uncover new knowledge. 

Our passions are uniquely ours because we bring our own vision, our own values, and our own versatility to them. Our passions are what start us on quests to change the world.  

No matter your chosen field, you can always be an explorer and a pioneer. Never be daunted by the knowledge of others. Learn what others know, but be curious and courageous about what is not known. 

It is acceptable and even necessary to challenge an established body of knowledge, if you think you have valid reason. If this had not been the case, we would still think the Earth was flat, and that all the celestial bodies in the universe revolved around the Earth. Now we know that we are a very tiny part of a galaxy among billions of galaxies. 

New scientific theories, new forms of music and literature, new technologies, cures for disease, new psychologies, and new visions come from those who dare to take risks and challenge conventional wisdom. Each of you has a unique contribution to make.

In fact, it was the distinguished educator and writer John Gardner who said, “Democracy is measured not by its leaders doing extraordinary things, but by its citizens doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.”

Over the last two centuries, America has been the nation that has most fundamentally shaped the world, primarily by citizens doing ordinary things with passion, commitment and ingenuity. 

The pioneers built sturdy wagons and trekked hundreds of miles with their families to settle a vast unknown territory.

Similarly, America has been shaped by its scientists, engineers, inventors and entrepreneurs.  They have ingrained in our culture the importance of asking questions, finding answers and challenging the status quo.

These accomplishments have occurred in tandem with the development of a unique system of universities and colleges. We’ve combined education with research so that students have the benefit of being taught by those doing the most advanced work in a field. 

And the reverse is also true. Researchers have the advantage of always being challenged by the questions their students ask. As graduates, you are the beneficiaries of one of the greatest universities in the finest university system in the world.  

Now, you are launching your careers — in a world that few could have imagined 100 years ago at the dawn of the 20th century. Social and career choices were more limited then. Few women worked. Those who did were usually limited to teaching or nursing.  

I’d like to share with you a little of the world I emerged from, as a Purdue student in 1956. As you might imagine, it was not without challenges, especially since women in science were relatively rare. In high school, I was advised by a science teacher not to major in science in college since science was not a career suitable for women. Later, a department chair denied me a graduate fellowship, saying it would be “wasted on a woman.”

I persevered.

In the 1960s, I was one of the first scientists to develop software to analyze bacteriological data, writing the first computer program to identify marine bacteria. I called it the “Little Bug Program,” written in machine language on an IBM 650 — and that model of computer now sits in the Smithsonian Institution on exhibit! Fast forward, and by the 1970s, my computational tools to study microbiology played a role in establishing the field of metagenomics and bioinformatics, key areas of scientific research today.

It is often small things that change the world — let me share just one story. In my career, I have had the privilege and satisfaction to discover where in the aquatic environment the bacterium causing the pandemic agent of cholera makes its home. I studied the bacterium, Vibrio cholerae, for more than 40 years, starting with the grounding in bacteriology obtained here at Purdue University. In the early years of research at Purdue University, I learned to ask scientific questions that provided foundation for experimental work that defied the conventional wisdom of the time. Many scoffed at my ideas and continued to pursue the old path. That only spurred me on to greater commitment.

Eventually, my students and I were able to prove that cholera is a disease caused by a bacterium that occurs naturally in rivers, estuaries, and coastal waters. And the bacterium has a dormant stage that fooled researchers. It literally hides between epidemics. We found that the cholera bacterium is associated with plankton found in virtually all rivers and streams and the coastal waters of the world. But purifying water is an elusive goal in poverty-stricken countries like Bangladesh, where boiling water for safe drinking is not an option. There simply isn’t enough firewood to burn.

An inexpensive option is to filter out the plankton and particulate matter to lessen and possibly prevent the disease. We found that simple sari cloth would make an excellent and affordable filter. The sari is the native dress for women in that region of the world. Our team of researchers taught the women in the remote villages of Bangladesh how to filter their water. And we learned in a follow-up study five years later that the women continued to filter the water … to protect their children and families … and, as a result, the cholera rate was significantly lower —approximately a 50% reduction in cholera cases.

Filtering is a small step — but it brought significant change to villages where cholera has been reduced. Our work was a small step toward reducing the number of people, especially children, who die each year from cholera. We were committed to our passion and able to make a difference. There are few things more gratifying in life than helping others help themselves.

Fast forward again, to 1998, when President Clinton appointed me director of the National Science Foundation. I’d come quite a long way from the young woman denied that fellowship.

I tell you this to share with you how far you can go with your passion, your splendid Purdue education and the degree you have earned. You are on the edge of a lifetime of adventure; on the brink of discoveries that will change the world; the promise of an exciting future. You are young men and women who have persevered. Who will make the world a better place for all of us.

We are a “world neighborhood” of 7 billion people, soon to be 10 billion, most of whom are disadvantaged. Yet, the poorest of the poor still maintain hope for the future. We will need leaders of vision who can find ways to realize that hope. I cannot predict the future, but I can see the trends. We will need citizens literate in both science and the humanities, and leaders who are articulate and ethical, with good judgment, who can navigate an increasingly complex world.

There is an African proverb that says, “The lack of knowledge is darker than night.” There is still a lot of darkness remaining in the world.  There are still many things to change for the better.  And simple solutions can be powerful. You will not want for challenges. 

Each of you has a unique contribution to make. Now, you are launching your careers — into a world few could have imagined. But today, the vast accumulated knowledge of science and engineering has created a momentum of discovery. It is unparalleled in human history. Your choices are almost unlimited, which makes our responsibility far greater. As individuals and as a nation, we must decide what we value and how to achieve it.

To the women graduating today, I would like to provide a special message. You have an important role to play in the “knowledge society.” Countries of the world thriving economically are those with greater participation of women in science and technology and greater numbers of women in the workforce. It is important that your educational and professional aspirations be fulfilled. Seek opportunities that allow you to make choices and decisions about your own lives. The United States is the leading knowledge-based economy of the world and a knowledge society that must include women to an equal extent to maintain leadership among nations.

Science and engineering are strong and valuable forces for finding solutions to problems and for changing the world in positive ways. But the task for all of us is to understand not just the benefits but also the complexities that science and engineering raise, and be informed partners in the debate about how knowledge is used. 

Do not forget the lessons you have learned here at Purdue. I’m sure you will reflect on some of those lessons, but I will let you in on a little secret: The truth is, you don’t yet know which of those Purdue lessons will prove to be the most important, the most enduring. You can’t know – not yet. You may not know until many years in the future, when you have the chance to think back on your university days. You will be surprised which lessons proved to be the most significant and influential.

This commencement is the beginning of your own personal … and collective … lifelong journey in learning and in changing the world to become ever better, more sustainable and more peaceful. 

And, in that journey, be curious, be studious, be compassionate and be committed. You will not lack for challenges, for excitement or for gratification, and I know that you can change our world.

Enjoy this commencement with all your heart and spirit. You have earned it!  Congratulations and great good luck.

Purdue University, 610 Purdue Mall, West Lafayette, IN 47907, (765) 494-4600

© 2015-22 Purdue University | An equal access/equal opportunity university | Copyright Complaints | Maintained by Office of Strategic Communications

Trouble with this page? Disability-related accessibility issue? Please contact News Service at