Nobel Prize winner Randy Schekman stressed the critical role of scientific reasoning and research, and discussed current skepticism of science, during the Rackham Graduate Exercises on May 3.
Schekman, a professor of cell and developmental biology at the University of California, Berkeley, delivered the keynote address at the annual Hill Auditorium graduation ceremony for those receiving master’s and doctoral degrees.
He described how, optimally, the graduates would take away bigger lessons and skills from their U-M experience, rather than just a vast array of facts.
“If we succeeded, you are now more critical of facts and sources,” Schekman said. “You will question the truth of some common wisdom and ask for the evidence that supports a broad assertion. … We win if your mind is stretched, but not filled.”
Schekman also touched on the history of the federal investment in science and science education, as well as government funding of basic research.
He said society faces a new skepticism of science, “grounded in the politics of energy and commerce, challenging the consensus scientific view that our climate is influenced by human activity.”
“We must welcome skepticism, but again, the challenge must be on the basis of experiment, observation and theory, not blind dogma or a gut feeling,” Schekman said.
Schekman said we face a determined opposition that would try to expunge from government sources any mention of climate change and cut off funding to advance the science.
“This country is not alone in the march of progress, and climate science will advance elsewhere,” he said. “We may sustain a temporary setback here in the U.S., but the march of progress fueled by the scientific method will advance and ultimately tackle our greatest challenges. These are the challenges and opportunities that you now face.”
At Berkeley, Schekman’s laboratory investigates the mechanism of membrane protein traffic in the secretory pathway in eukaryotic cells. The genes and proteins his lab discovered in yeast have counterparts in all eukaryotes and have been implicated in several human genetic diseases.
An investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Schekman has received several awards, including the Gairdner International Award and the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which he shared with James Rothman and Thomas Südhof.
In his remarks, President Mark Schlissel noted the importance of possessing an open mind, asking smart questions, and the role of serendipity all as part of the discover process.
“Class of 2019, your experience here with the process of discovery has positioned you to lead — in the labs, companies, universities, organizations and communities you will join next,” Schlissel said. “I urge you to keep an open mind, continue to ask questions, base your decisions on deep thought and the rigorous analysis of data, and share your work so it has the greatest impact.”
Michael J. Solomon, dean of the Rackham Graduate School, advised the graduates that taking risks and navigating the unknown can yield benefits in ways never imagined.
He said when Rackham was created, one of the aims was to bring individuals from different disciplines together. He said it was understood there was more to be learned by reaching out across disciplines and exposing oneself to the unfamiliar.
“As you go out from Michigan today, I encourage you to continue to embrace those ideas, to carry them forward and to continually find inspiration in the unexpected,” Solomon said. “That inspiration is what can change your life.”