Sion Hill Academic Prize Ceremony
Dominican College Sion Hill, Blackrock
Tuesday, 2 October 2012
Good morning, everyone, and thank you for inviting me here to Sion Hill this morning.
As you’ve just heard from Ms Sheila Drum, I’m the head - or the Provost, as we call it - of Trinity College Dublin. You will know Trinity College from your trips to town, and some of you will have walked inside to see the beautiful buildings and old cobblestones, and maybe the Book of Kells.
Or perhaps you’ve visited the Science Gallery. I hope that you’ve taken from your visit the feeling that universities are fascinating places, full of wonderful research and holding the treasures of the ages.
Today is your annual academic prize ceremony, when as a school you celebrate learning, creativity and the spirit of discovery. I’ve been invited to talk to you because, as a university, we in Trinity also celebrate those things. I’m sure you’ve all heard, often enough, the saying that young people are the hope of the future. That’s something I realise every day.
Without talented, enthusiastic young people like you there would be no need for universities. Every year new students from Sion Hill and other schools decide to study in Trinity - if they didn’t, then Trinity couldn’t exist. And without Trinity and other universities, Ireland would not be educating the engineers, the lawyers and the teachers; writers, designers and architects; doctors, vets and business entrepreneurs; biochemists, speech therapists and psychologists - all the different people and different professions that help run our society and grow the economy.
So that’s how important it is for us, as a society, that you, our young people, love learning, creativity and discovery. And that you have the drive, the energy, and the commitment to apply yourselves.
Important as it is to win prizes, the most important thing is the sense that you have worked to the best of your ability and done all you can to reach your potential. I know, from my years studying and teaching in Trinity, that, in the end, what upsets people most is the sense that they sold themselves short, that they didn’t really try, that they gave up when the going got tough, that they took the lazy option.
I think that when we give prizes - in schools, universities and professional life - what we’re really rewarding is effort, hard work, and courage. Because it’s easy to say ‘who cares?’ It takes courage to say ‘I want to excel’. A prize is great recognition from society that your work is good, but in life that recognition can sometimes be a long time coming, and the most important thing is your own awareness that you’re using your gifts, that you’re using your talents.
About fifteen years ago, Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature. As you know, it is the highest literary honour you can receive. When it was announced there was great excitement in Ireland - but none of the newspapers or radio stations could get hold of him. He was on holidays in the Greek islands, and even the Irish Ambassador to Greece couldn’t locate him.
This was 1995, before mobile phones - if you can imagine such a time. For a day or so it seems Heaney didn’t even know he’d won the Nobel Prize. All over the world other famous writers were glued to their radios and telephones to see if they’d won, but Seamus wasn’t, because, I think, he was content in the quality of his work.
He knew that his poems touched people’s lives. He knew that in classrooms all over Ireland, children read that beautiful, simple, and heart-breaking poem ‘Mid-term break’. He knew that people were able to connect to his feelings when he lost his four-year old brother. That’s the magic of poetry. Of course he was delighted to win the Nobel Prize but he wrote ‘Mid-term break’ and other great poems long before he won any great prize - he had an inner determination that went beyond the need for any prizes....
And I could give you lots of examples of people whose work took time to be appreciated. One of my favourites is the Trinity mathematician, William Rowan Hamilton. In 1843, after fifteen long years of study, he discovered the equation for a ‘four-element multiple of numbers’ called quaternions. He was praised for this discovery but at the time nobody knew just how important it would be. In fact it was only more than a hundred years later that these quaternions became famous - today quaternions are used in the control of spacecraft and in 3-D computer modelling.
I’m not saying you have to wait hundreds of years before your work is appreciated, but I am saying that when you work hard on something you feel passionate about, then you get a feeling of exhilaration and your brain starts surprising you. It comes up with stuff you never knew you knew. I’m sure some of you - I hope all of you - have experienced this feeling. It’s one of the best feelings in the world. It’s a bonus if you get a prize for it, but the excitement comes from doing the work and pushing beyond your boundaries.
All professions offer the chance to push boundaries and excel. Whatever you’re working on, you have the opportunity to make breakthroughs and find better ways of doing things.
In universities, discoveries are happening all the time. For instance, people have known for decades that the DNA of humans and chimpanzees is 99% identical, but what is in that 1% DNA that differentiates us? Nobody knew, until recently when Professor Aoife McLysaght the Trinity geneticist discovered three genes that are unique to humans. Aoife’s discovery means that we’re one step closer to understanding the secret of what makes us human.
And then there’s nanotechonolgy. ‘Nanos’ means dwarf in Greek, and nanoscience is the study of atoms, molecules, and objects on the nanometer scale. It’s a new science with amazing potential. For instance, in Trinity’s nanoscience institute, Professor Valeria Nicolosi is working on creating faster, smaller and lighter mobile electronics devices such as smartphones, tablets and computers.
I could give you lots more examples. I was recently in Moscow celebrating the translation of Irish poets into Russian. Russian schoolchildren will now have a chance to read ‘Mid-term break’. I know you’re all studying foreign languages. When you get to the stage with a foreign language that you can translate poetry - well then you know you’ll be making a breakthrough!
The important thing is that, whatever you’re doing, you apply yourself whole-heartedly, and believe in your ability to make a difference. Maybe you don’t know yet what you’ll be working on or how you’ll make a difference. That’s normal. Remember Hamlet’s line to his friend, Horatio: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Well there are certainly more jobs in the world than we’ve dreamt of! And universities keep expanding and adding new subjects to keep up with the changing world.
When I went to Trinity to study engineering in 1983, there was no nanoscience institute - the word hadn’t even been invented. There was also no Centre for Global Health, no School of Creative Writing. There were no courses for actors, directors, or playwrights. There are all these courses now, and more.
We are currently in an economic recession. Times are not the easiest. But compared to when I went to university there are many more diverse ways for you to express yourselves and to realise your potential, both inside and outside the classroom. This was brought home to me earlier this year when I was giving out the ‘Business Student of the Year’ award. Between them, the six short-listed students had:
- published articles, not just in college magazines, but in international journals,
- they had organised job fairs and Awareness Weeks,
- founded new college societies,
- learnt languages,
- been finalists in the TES Dragon’s Den,
- managed a 30K student investment fund,
- and volunteered and fund-raised in Ireland and abroad.
Believe me, we were not doing all that when I was at college! Students today are constantly pushing the boundaries of university life. That’s how it should be because the university years are such a unique period, with such potential for growth. There is no other time in your life when you have so much freedom to explore who you are and what you want to do.
The most important thing when you’re leaving school is to feel your horizons opening out, giving you a sense of the manifest possibilities of life. This is never a time to close down or narrow your options.
Sometimes we narrow our options because of unconscious societal pressure. When I was studying Engineering, there were few girls on my course. Fortunately this is changing and now many girls study engineering, nanotechnology, biochemistry, you name it. The pressure against girls studying certain subjects is fading, but there may be other unconscious pressures colouring our choices, in ways we can’t even perceive. We are all sometimes prey to insecurities. We’ve all heard the negative voice within, whispering that something is beyond us.
Well we know what President Obama said to that negative voice. The resonance of his simple message - Yes, we Can - is because we know that too often, we believe we can’t. It’s terrible that your grandmothers who might have made brilliant mathematicians and engineers, believed society when it said they couldn’t.
So yes, you can do and be what you want.
But don’t box yourselves in. Try not to limit your choices. Try not to give up on subjects before you’ve given them your best shot. Try not to tell yourself self-fulfilling prophecies like ‘I’m bad at languages’ or ‘If I don’t get points for medicine, I’m a failure’ or ‘It’s uncool to look like I care’. When you start telling yourself these things, you start defining, too early, what kind of a person you are, and if you do that, you stop surprising yourself.
Without surprises the future looks very dull. Young people are the hope of the future - which means that you are the hope of your own futures.
I wish you all a surprising future, and I look forward to seeing some of you in Trinity, pushing the boundaries of discovery.