The late American microbiologist Carl Woese was once labeled a “crazy crackpot” for wanting to include a new branch in the scientific tree of life.
“His proposal was not just dismissed by scientists, he was met with hostility,” recalled Professor of Biology Anne Bernhard as she addressed the Class of 2021, returning students, faculty and staff who gathered Monday on Jean C. Tempel ’65 Green for Connecticut College’s 103rd Convocation.
Yet after nearly 10 years of persistence and gradual scientific consensus, Woese was eventually vindicated, and received the Crafoord Prize for his work discovering the bacteria-like Archaea.
Bernhard, whose scientific research includes discoveries within the Archaea branch, drew inspiration from her more than 30 years as a scientist for her address, “Humpback Whales, Bacteria, and the Liberal Arts.”
She shared with students her two biggest lessons: that much of what they now know will likely be wrong 100 years from now. And often, theories and ideas are connected to other disciplines in unexpected ways.
“As you navigate your way through the curriculum, you will have opportunities to take classes in fields seemingly far distant from your major,” she said. “Yet if you are paying attention, you will see that they are not so far distant, and they might even help you to understand some of the concepts in your own major.
“My advice to you is to keep your mind open as you choose your classes. Look for the unexpected connections you may encounter, and be alert to ways these encounters may reshape your thinking.”
Earlier in the ceremony, which celebrates the formal opening of the academic year, President Katherine Bergeron drew from this year’s Orientation theme to “welcome home” the 445 members of the Class of 2021, 24 transfer students,18 new staff and 13 new faculty members.
Bergeron also found inspiration in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which was the summer reading requirement for first-year students, and connected the work to the racial and religious intolerance currently challenging the nation.
The novel, Bergeron said, “challenges us to think about the connections that bind vastly different cultures, and how those connections inform the legacies of race and racism in the world we now inhabit.”
Bergeron added that to deal with our own relationship to the inequality we see in the world, and to achieve progress toward justice, equality and human dignity, each person must resolve to do three things: “study deeply; engage authentically; live honorably.”
During the ceremony, members of the College community recited the nearly 100-year-old Honor Code Matriculation Pledge, a pledge to uphold academic excellence and high community standards in every aspect of their lives.
“This is not an empty ritual, but an affirmation of our history as a community—as a home— bound by integrity, trust and truth,” Bergeron said.
The Constitution Brass Quintet provided the musical prelude, and the Manchester Pipe Band led the processional. Convocation concluded with the singing of the Alma Mater and was followed by a community picnic on Chapel Green.