Thinking big is not a matter of scale. For example, this year’s Commencement speaker had an innovative idea about something on the molecular level: a gene.
Rudolph Tanzi was a graduate student at Harvard working on Huntington’s disease when he discovered that people with Down syndrome have an extra gene on their 21st chromosome, and by middle age they develop signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Excited to explore the connection between the two, Tanzi did so despite his professors’ efforts to discourage him. A self-described rebel, Tanzi notes that because at the time he was playing in a rock band five nights a week, “I didn’t hear so well—I didn’t listen.”
Sometimes it is important to not hear so well.
For example, we did not hear so well when we were discouraged from seeking funding for a new chemistry building. Nor did we hear so well when people said we were foolish to go after a $125 million bond to build a new College of Engineering. Many of us didn’t hear well when skeptics said URI students would never sign up for J-Term.
To the delight of our faculty, students and the state, our new Chemistry building will open next fall; we are close to putting shovels in the earth for our state-of-the-art Engineering complex, and J-Term is so popular that in its second year, enrollment increased by 50 percent. Students studied in places as far away as Hawaii and Korea and as close as Connecticut and New York. What’s more, by the time you receive this issue of QuadAngles, URI will have hosted Navy Week, an honor reserved for only 12 sites nationally. Just as URI students and faculty go out into the world, so, too, does the world come to URI.
Rudolph Tanzi’s amazing journey started, remarkably enough, in Cranston, Rhode Island. This Cranston High School East graduate holds an endowed chair in neurology at Harvard Medical School. He oversees laboratories at Mass General investigating the genetic causes of Alzheimer’s and developing novel therapies for the disease. Time magazine named him one of 2015 “100 Most Influential People in the World.” GQ featured him in its “Rock Stars of Science” issue. The New York Times bestseller, Super Brain, that he wrote with Deepak Chopra, M.D., served as the basis for his PBS series, Super Brain with Rudy Tanzi. But wait—there’s more! An accomplished keyboardist, Tanzi has performed and recorded with Joe Perry, Aerosmith, and other major musical artists.
What can we learn from Tanzi and our other extraordinary honorary degree recipients—Shirley Cherry, Rolf-Dieter Schnelle, Angus Taylor, and the late Leo F. DiMaio Jr.—each of whom has made a transformational contribution to the world?
Beyond thinking big, which I believe is now part of our own University genome, the message I hope our graduating seniors will carry with them from Kingston is to always remain curious, to be willing to challenge the status quo, and to understand when it is imperative to not hear so well. When you do encounter life’s inevitable hurdles, remember the words of our rock star scientist: “The brain is like a piano. You can learn how to really play it.”
Congratulations to the wonderful class of 2015!
David M. Dooley