Graduation address – Professor Moira Jardine

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to stand here today with all of these new graduates in front of me. They are, I have to say, almost unrecognisable in their finery. But graduates – if your gowns are feeling slightly uncomfortable and those new shoes are pinching – you may at least be re-assured that you are not alone. Many of us share your discomfort. Graduation ceremonies are not meant to be humdrum everyday affairs. They are meant to be a splendid and memorable celebration of your achievements.

It seems, I’m sure, a very long time since you all first arrived here to begin your studies. I remember (sometime last millennium) arriving at Leuchars station as a new young student myself. It was, surprisingly, cold and windy. I’m sure this is something you have some experience of. It seemed a rather desolate spot, a long way from home and very much at the end of the world. I realised to my horror that there was no way that I could carry my huge trunk up and over the railway bridge to the bus stop. Thankfully, I discovered the benefits of co-operation and found a few new friends to help me.

These friendships that you have made here are one of the lasting things that you will take away with you. Your friends have shared with you some of the most exciting and formative years of your life. They have shared the perhaps rather daunting first few weeks when you were finding your feet here and getting used to the system of academic parents. They have observed the strange rituals of Raisin Monday (and they still have the photographs). They have shared with you those late night parties that you (almost) remember, and the next-day tutorials that you bluffed your way through. They have stayed up late with you cramming for exams and perhaps also shared those moments of revelation when a difficult concept that you had struggled with finally became clear to you. These friends are the core of the supportive and friendly environment that we cherish here and is very much a feature of a University that is “small but perfectly formed”.

But what else will you take away? I hope you will leave with a real love of learning and a justified confidence in your own abilities, with minds capable of analysing complex issues, of formulating arguments and of processing information from a variety of sources. Indeed, your heads are probably more stuffed with information now than they ever will be again. However, there is no need for you to be concerned about this – it’s not a permanent condition. Such information is transitory and will no doubt trickle out through your ears very quickly, if it hasn’t done so already. Much more important is the ability to learn, which you have been honing in your time here. It is this ability that will allow you to adapt to the rapidly changing world of work that you now face. After all, today doesn’t mark the end of your education, simply the start of a new phase of it. Some of you may indeed leave here today and move on to further study, but many of you will be moving onto jobs where your new employers will expect you to put those well trained minds to good use. You may never again find yourself poring over equations of state or chemical pathways, but the generic skills of discrimination and analysis that you have developed here will stand you in good stead for the future.

Today, then, is a day for congratulations, mostly to you graduates. Some of you will have breezed through your studies with little apparent effort – probably to the irritation of your fellow students. Some of you however will have had to struggle hard and will have had to show real grit and determination to get here today. You have all made it through however and we are extremely proud of you. Many people deserve thanks for helping you to get this far, most notably perhaps your parents, who have encouraged you and supported you with bank transfers, red-cross parcels and deliveries of fresh laundry. Their pleasure in your achievements is no doubt mixed with relief that you are finally off their hands – though I fear this relief may be short-lived.

There is also a whole cohort of University staff who have helped you through the years, from the clerical and IT staff who have managed your records and maintained your all-important web access, to the catering and janitorial staff who have fed and housed you. And then there are your lecturers and tutors. They have guided your studies, shared their own hard-won insights and expanded your minds. They have stayed up late marking your essays, smiled at the excuses you have scribbled in the margins of your tutorials, and worried about you probably more than you realise. Teaching, however, is a two-way street and I would claim that your lecturers have also benefitted from teaching you – from the occasional truly penetrating question or the unexpected insight that can come from someone with a fresh view of a topic. It keeps us on our toes! In teaching you, we become better researchers. The process of reformulating an idea or concept many times for many different students helps us to clarify our own understanding. Research and teaching are not two separate activities, but rather two sides of the same process of learning.

We also benefit from the enthusiasm that you have brought to your studies and the refreshingly novel approach to learning that students take. One of my own classes started a trend of bringing a weekly cake to my lectures on magnetohydrodynamics – a course that is everything its name suggests. This had the desired effect of slowing down the lectures. I discovered that it is really very difficult to convey the subtleties of the interaction of a magnetic field and a plasma if your mouth is full of cake. At the end of the year, however, the class noted that this was a reciprocal arrangement and that I was expected to make a cake for them. My protests that I had never before baked anything fell on unsympathetic ears and I was very firmly dispatched with the words “How hard can it be?” So – from my students I have learned the valuable life lesson that it really is never too late to learn a new skill.

So as you head out to the next phase of your lives we offer you our congratulations and our best wishes for your futures. You are the most recent in a very long line of St Andrews graduates. As the University approaches its 600th year, we can look back to all the young men and women who have studied here and who have gone on to enrich the lives of those around them. You will find St Andrews graduates all around the globe, but they share a common tradition of striving for excellence. We hope that you take this with you into your new lives, but also that you come back and see us sometime and that you remember us well, as we will indeed remember all of you.

Professor Moira Jardine
School of Physics & Astronomy

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