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April 30, 2009

Commencement 2009

With a folksy, hometown manner sprinkled with humor, an internationally prominent scientist gave newly minted Pitt graduates his advice on pathways to success at the April 26 commencement convocation.

Pitt alumnus, Pittsburgh native and National Medal of Science awardee Bert W. O’Malley, a pioneering researcher in the field of biological sciences, told the University’s newest alumni, “In the future, don’t think about your job, but think about your vocation. Your vocation is your life’s body of work … that will complete your life. Your vocation is really who you are and who you were. At the end of your life, do you want to have your life summed up in dollar signs? Would you like a number on your gravestone to summarize your life? I think not. And don’t make that your gold standard in your life — money.”

On the 50th anniversary of earning his Pitt undergraduate degree, O’Malley addressed a Petersen Events Center throng of more than 15,000, counting graduates and their families and friends. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science as part of a ceremony performed in full academic regalia and with the customary pomp and circumstance marking the University’s 222nd year.

O’Malley, who has been called the “father of molecular endocrinology,” holds the Thomas C. Thompson Chair in Cell Biology at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He also directs the college’s Center for Reproductive Biology and is associate director for basic science in the school’s Dan L. Duncan Cancer Center.

O’Malley has served as president of the Endocrine Society and helped establish Molecular Endocrinology, one of the most-cited biomedical science journals. He has contributed to more than 600 scientific and medical publications and holds 19 patents for special techniques and inventions related to molecular and cellular biology. He is credited with path-breaking insights into the function of hormones in normal development and disease states.

In addition to the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest honor for science and engineering, O’Malley has received numerous other honors, including the Feltrinelli International Prize for Biology and the Brinker International Award for Breast Cancer Research. He also was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland.

O’Malley earned his bachelor of science here in 1959 — when he also was president of the student government and was named “Mr. Pitt” — and his medical degree here in 1963.

Pitt previously honored O’Malley with the Dickson Prize in Medicine, the Philip S. Hench Distinguished Alumnus Award and the Bicentennial Medallion of Distinction.

“I’ve been chosen to speak because of my own perceived success,” O’Malley said. “But I’m not going to talk to you about science. And I’m not going to tell you to do it my way.”

Instead, he based his definition of success on his observations over 45 years of more than 250 young scientists he has trained and mentored. “To me it boils down to five main criteria: sufficient intelligence; commitment to industry or hard work; judgment — good judgment; a personal code of ethics, and opportunism. And those are all things that are not so magical when you think about them.”

Regarding native intelligence, or IQ, O’Malley said, “Can you ‘IQ’ your way to success? Clearly not. In short, if you graduate from college, IQ is off the table. You can’t use it as your excuse for failure, and you can’t make it your [main condition] for success.”

Instant genius is a myth, he added. Even Mozart, Bill Gates and Tiger Woods, all known as prodigies in their respective endeavors, had to work long hours before they achieved success, O’Malley noted.

For example, while Mozart started writing piano concertos at age 5 it wasn’t until he had composed Concerto No. 9 at age 21 that he was recognized by critics as having composed a masterpiece.

“Work effort and reward are related,” O’Malley said. “So the point is, in life, to succeed, you’ve got to put the effort in. And it takes some time. And it takes some hours. And you’re just starting that track. You haven’t finished it,” he told the class of 2009.

Similarly, good judgment is a factor in success, he said. “Judgment is practical intelligence — to know what to say and when, what to do and when, when to persevere and when to give up. Judgment is something you need to learn, and it is a big separator for successful people in science.”

O’Malley said, “You can get ahead without a personal code of ethics, but you won’t be happy. A human conscience weighs very heavily. I suggest you pay strong attention to that.”

He urged the new degree-holders to search for opportunities for themselves and not to rely on so-called experts to provide them.

To illustrate the point, he told a tale of a recently named Native American chief in South Dakota who had to decide if the coming winter weather would be severe enough that the tribe should gather extra wood. The new chief was unschooled in ways of reading nature’s predicting signs, but, being cautious, he urged the tribe members to gather extra wood.

To cover his bases, however, the chief repeatedly consulted the local weather service as the winter approached. With each inquiry, the news was worse — from predictions of a cold winter, to one that would be severe to one that would be among the worst on record.

Following each increasingly dire prediction, he sent the tribe members back out to gather more wood. Finally, he asked the weather service, “How do you know it’s going to one of the coldest winters on record?”

The reply came, “Because the Indians are out gathering wood like crazy!”

O’Malley said the lesson for the graduates is: “Search for opportunities. The opportunities are always there and the experts don’t know it all.”

He told the graduates to be optimistic despite the current economic troubles in the world. “In a way the glass is half full because we are on the verge of the next economic boom, which, if history repeats itself, will be above 45 percent of what the last one was,” O’Malley maintained.

Moreover, he said, downturns in the economy are the periods of greatest invention and innovation in the history of this country.

“When things tighten up, the human has one resource [to] rely on — the brain. So put your ingenuity to work,” he said.

As a final thought, O’Malley said, “Don’t limit yourselves. You don’t know what you can do in life yet. You are just starting out. Do not settle. Set your goals high. Set your goal way up here and you will at least reach your capacity — which is what you want to do. If you set your goal [lower], you are going to fall below your capacity, and that’s an unhappy thing later in your life. So shoot for the stars. Keep your feet on the ground and your eyes on the heavens. You’re a Pitt graduate. And that world out there is not as tough as you might think.”

This year the University conferred approximately 6,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees, including 416 doctorates, to students on the Pittsburgh campus, and approximately 1,000 undergraduate degrees to students on the Bradford, Greensburg, Johnstown and Titusville regional campuses, which hold their own commencement ceremonies.

—Peter Hart

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