A Message to New Science, Engineering, and Technology Graduates in 2022.
My commencement speech to graduates at Lawrence Tech University last Saturday.
I am deeply honored to have been invited to mark this moment with you here today. To the graduates…and your family, friends, and loved ones. Congratulations. To the faculty and staff that have spent the past 4 years nurturing your skills and empowering your minds — thank you for a job well done.
Though this is my first time spending a full day on campus, in so many ways, I feel at home. Let me explain: I grew up not 15 minutes from here. Both of my parents are engineering professors. And my father immigrated to this country from Egypt — just like your President. Yeah, this feels A lot like home. I’m just waiting for someone to tell me to stand up a little straight.
But that might actually be a good place to start. As I was preparing to speak to you today, I kept thinking about my father — and so many immigrants like him. About the journeys they made, about why they made them — and about what it says about this place and where we go from here.
My dad, Mohamed, immigrated from Alexandria, Egypt. His family weren’t working class, they were poor. Giddu, my grandfather, was forced out of school in the 8th grade, fending for his mother and sisters after his father had died. This was mid-20th century Egypt, a time and place where colonialism meant that resources were limited, corruption meant that his inheritance was stolen, and misogyny meant that his mother and sisters couldn’t find meaningful work.
He began selling vegetables in a fish market to feed his family.
Teta, my grandmother, never got to go to school —she was illiterate. And yet, to this day, she remains the wisest, most intelligent person I have ever met.
My father was her eldest — from among 8 children to whom she gave birth. But only six survived. My dad watched two of his baby siblings die before they turned one.
From the jump, my dad loved machines — any and all machines. He loved to tinker with them, to break them down and build them back up. For a minute he’d lose himself in them, transporting him beyond the cramped one-bedroom he shared with his siblings — to a world where everything made sense, every piece designed just so. nothing like the one he lived in.
But generational trauma is real. My Giddu was forever scarred by his own father’s death. He vowed that nothing like that would ever happen to his family. They had to be prepared. And that fell hardest on his eldest, my dad. And it meant that when my dad wasn’t studying, he’d be working, so that if the worst happened, he could shoulder the responsibilities of caring for his family.
But like I told you, he loved machines — and he knew he wanted to work with them. So he took up photography. Remember, this was the 70s, back then cameras weren’t ubiquitous on the back of every smartphone because phones themselves were quite dumb.
Camera’s were mechanical machines with flash bulbs and lens shutters that exposed film to light for just an instant, trapping an image for as long as that film could survive. My dad would walk the corniche, offering families to take their photos. He’d snap them and then rush to the studio to touch up the films, only to rush them back to the customers. All the while, he’d get to play with these miraculous little machines.
When he graduated college — in mechanical engineering, naturally — he knew he wanted to spend his life designing the coolest machines of all: cars. And where better to do that than the mecca of the automotive industry? Metro Detroit. He got a full-tuition scholarship to pursue his PhD in Mechanical Engineering just down the street at Wayne State, and throughout his career he’s worked on everything from Hummers to Corvettes to Hydrogen buses.
Now you might wonder why I’m telling you this story about my dad. He graduated nearly half a century ago! And you? You’re the one’s graduating today.
Well, I’m sharing it because this is your commencement. See, to commence is to start something, and though, we’re here today because you all just ended something — you’re probably a lot more interested in where you’re going, in what today will start.
And sometimes, to understand the future, you’ve got to reflect on where others like you have gone. I shared my father’s story because, like my dad, each of you has found yourself here because of a moment of inspiration like his — a spark. He took his spark from a tiny 1-bedroom shared with seven other people to working on some of the most marvelous machines on earth.
Where will yours take you?
It’s already brought you here. That spark, it’s already dedicated you to your craft — to the calculus or chemistry that can turn an idea into something tangible, something real.
You’ve brought that spark to everything you’ve done here, it’s willed you through sleepless nights and grueling days. And you’ve fed it — through the opportunities you’ve had to test your skills in internships and fellowships, working on teams that are turning their sparks into reality. You’ve spent hours in lectures, laboratories, and libraries to hone your skills — mastering the technical know-how that will allow you to turn that spark into new technologies, new realities, and new paradigms.
Some of you will go on to build new robotics that could transform the way we perform surgeries or nanotechnologies that revolutionize the way we treat cancer. Some of you will code new software that transforms that very smart phone in your pocket into yet another tool that facilitates our lives. Some of you will design new systems that rethink how we deal with a heating climate. Some of you will invent new models that can help us prevent the next pandemic, saving the lives of millions.
All of us here — we can’t wait to see what your spark will turn into, the world it will build for us. But there’s something more I want to share with you today.
I don’t have to tell you this, but yours was not the usual college experience. If I’m doing my math correctly — I didn’t study math — the pandemic started in what would have been the spring of your sophomore year, that meant that the experiences you should have taken for granted, were taken away. Rather than lecture halls, laboratories, or libraries — you were forced to learn from living rooms or childhood bedrooms, from a small box on your computer screen.
But this pandemic? It also offers some critical lessons to all of us who’s spark is for science, technology, and engineering.
Your time here has equipped you with some extraordinary abilities — you have knowledge and technical skills that most people don’t. That was made possible by the rare combination of that spark in you, and the privilege to explore and develop it. What a gift.
But like all gifts, that comes with responsibilities.
The science and technology you just spent years mastering — it’s facing a lot of critics right now. The pandemic’s left our society with a newfound mistrust of science and scientific institutions. It’s easy to blame others, but we — the scientific community — we’re also responsible. Because we haven’t always taken the time to explain our science to society. We’ve hid behind technical jargon or excused our failure to explain ourselves behind what is, at times, a smug attitude of elitism.
Instead, we fell back on lazy tropes like “Trust the science,” when we should have been working to make science trustworthy. After all, as I know your professors have taught you, one of the cornerstones of science is transparency. Science was made to be questioned, not blindly trusted. In fact, science progresses when scientists DON’T trust the science that came before them — they question the assumptions, replicate experiments, and yield new, interesting insights that directly contradict what came earlier. “Trust the science” is an oxymoron. So explaining what we do to those who may not have had the same opportunities as we have is part of the deal, it’s one of our most important responsibilities.
Moving forward, I’m asking you to be an ambassador for that spark inside you, whether in public or just with your family and friends. In a time when science itself is under question, we, the scientific community, have to answer for it.
I could stand here and tell you that you should never use your awesome powers for evil. But that’s too simplistic. Because most of the time, evil never declares itself out the gate. It’s more a Frankenstein scenario — you only realize you’ve created a monster when it’s out stalking half your town. Most of the time, we simply fail to think critically about the long term consequences of the stuff we build.
We conflate two questions: “Can we” vs. “should we.”
After all, that “can we” question is the one most of us find exciting — the challenge and thrill of pursuing a seemingly impossible task. But even though “can we” is what wakes us up in the morning, “should we” is what should keep us up at night.
After all: Why are so many people so misinformed about the science surrounding the pandemic? It’s not just that they don’t have true information — it’s that they’re being fed gobs and gobs of false information. And that?
That’s a technology problem.
Can we create massive social media platforms that move unprecedented amounts of information in real time without thinking through what’s being shared? Can we create algorithms that monetize that platform by promoting the most enraging content? It turns out we can—and someone did.
But should we? We’ve all watched how that’s turned out — foreign powers meddling in democratic elections, people with bad intentions using these tools to incite chaos and violence, people intentionally pushing false information about life-saving vaccines in a pandemic.
Which brings me to my last piece of hope: I hope you’ll expand your “can we” questions beyond the technical ones. Look, I get it: The excitement of doing something new, something different, something never before seen — that’s what you got into this for.
But beyond the technical questions, I hope you’ll ask the moral questions.
Can we end hunger?
Can we solve inequity?
Can we heal the sick?
Can we stop the climate crisis?
Can we truly unite people?
As exciting as the technical questions are, I promise you the moral ones are the most fulfilling. And guess what, underneath every one of these moral can we’s, is a whole bunch of technical ones on which we need you to bend your minds.
Today, in just a few moments, you’re going to walk across this stage. You’re going to receive a diploma that certifies that you’ve built the knowledge and skills to ply your trade — to unleash your spark on the world. But today isn’t just the end of something big. It’s the commencement of something bigger.
Each of you will play a role in building the world as it will be. And it’ll be that way because you brought your spark to it. You will have asked “can we,” and answered we did. We did feed the hungry. We did solve inequity. We did heal the sick. We did stop the climate crisis. We did unite people around our shared humanity. We did. We did. We did.
I know I speak for all of us here—parents, family friends, faculty, staff — when I say that we can’t wait to live in the world you build—the world we’ll build together.
For today, congratulations. For tomorrow, good luck and Godspeed. We’re counting on you.