Graduation address: Professor Sharon Ashbrook

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Professor Sharon Ashbrook

Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen, and all our new graduates, welcome to this graduation ceremony and to this very special day here in St Andrews. Today we celebrate all your achievements during your time here and we look forward to the next steps that you will take on your journey.

When I was asked to give this speech I started to think about what would make a good graduation address – I wondered whether it should be retrospective or forward-looking, whether it should be humorous or very serious. I turned to my own graduation for some ideas – what had inspired me when I was sitting where you are today? I realised with growing horror that I could not remember a single word of the address at my graduation or indeed who had given it. It is not so surprising looking back – I spent the whole time in a state of complete panic, worried about the ceremony being conducted in Latin, worried that I would miss my name being called, and somehow not end up with a degree after all. Realising that you probably won’t remember what I do say today did initially take the pressure off somewhat, but then I realised that, unlike my own graduation, this is the age of the internet and live streaming…

What I have realised over the past few weeks of course, is that what you will remember most from St Andrews, what you will take away with you, probably won’t be the graduation address, but it will be all of the experiences you have had here and everything you have learnt academically, practically and personally. Academically, you studied your chosen subjects to very high levels – the degrees you have been awarded here today attest to that. Practically, you have learned much along the way – how to manage your time, how to work in a team and (for some of you at least!) how to meet deadlines. You will take away the friendships that you have formed and the relationships you have had. We hope these will continue to grow and develop as you now move on from St Andrews.

You can be justifiably proud of everything that you have achieved here but we should remember you have had some help along the way. The academics on the stage behind me will hope they have contributed in some way to your success. More importantly, perhaps, we should thank your family and friends. They have listened and supported you through the difficult times and many are here today to celebrate your success with you. Parents – if your son/daughter is anything like I was as a student, you have had the worried, anxious, even tearful, phone calls when deadlines or exams are looming, or when assessments have not gone as well as hoped. You might have even had the slightly hysterical phone calls when they have lost their entire product in a recrystallization step and been shouted at by an irate organic chemistry professor. I certainly had that conversation with my parents on at least three occasions – perhaps explaining why I am a physical chemist today.

Today though we should not just think about what St Andrews has given you. We also should celebrate what you have given back. The departments you have been members of, and the university as a whole, have been enriched and changed by your time here. You have contributed to our research efforts – during your PhD studies, honours projects or summer projects. Your questions in tutorials and group meetings have made us think about science and about what we understand and how we explain things. Your feedback questionnaires have helped us think about how we teach (some a little more constructively than others!) and you have improved the courses for the generation of students that will follow you. You have recruited that next generation of students – helping at open days, talking to parents, giving tours. Perhaps more importantly, you have recruited the next generation of scientists, with your outreach work at local schools, on initiatives such as Chembus or Geobus, or here at the University on summer schools, space schools and Sutton Trust events. You have inspired a generation of students who hope to follow in your footsteps and one day sit where you are today.

I would like to finish by looking forward to the future – as you move on from St Andrews to further degrees, PhD positions, postdoctoral research, new jobs or new careers. We hope you take everything you have learned here with you, we hope you are successful in all that you do, but more than that we hope that you are happy. Please come back and see us, let us know how you are getting on. We look forward to hearing about all of your achievements and celebrating these with you. We hope you do not forget St Andrews and we hope that you do not forget your time here. We certainly will not forget the legacy that each and every one of you has left with us.

So congratulations once again, our best wishes for the future and I hope you all enjoy the rest of the day.

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