Published May 19, 2015
"Information alone is silent and passive--until we ignite it with a creative spark."
This is Commencement season at the University at Buffalo—a very special time in the academic year as we celebrate the Class of 2015, their achievements, and their future.
Beginning with our medical and dental school ceremonies earlier this month, and extending through Law School commencement on May 23, we will proudly confer UB degrees on some 5,645 graduates this season. These graduates—across the disciplines—take with them a considerable body of knowledge accumulated through countless hours of study, debate, and research.
On one level, commencement is a time when we recognize that our graduates have mastered the essential principles and intellectual tools of their disciplines. And we pronounce that they stand ready to make their own original contributions to expand that body of knowledge in their own fields.
This rite of passage is a proud scholarly tradition, and well worth celebrating. But this Commencement season, I find myself reflecting often on what it is that transcends that disciplinary knowledge. As I like to remind our graduates, what we know is only part of the story. It is what we do with this knowledge that will shape our unique contributions to humanity.
What I am really talking about is the creative impulse—the force that brings knowledge to life, transforms ideas into action, imagines new worlds beyond our experience…and then makes them a reality. Information alone is silent and passive—until we ignite it with a creative spark. The creative impulse pulls and assembles meaning from assorted facts and data. It is what makes discovery, problem-solving, and innovation possible.
To illustrate what I mean, I want to share a story that I have been telling to many of our graduates at Commencement ceremonies over the past two weeks. It begins in 1956, in a barn in Clarence, NY owned by Wilson Greatbatch. While earning a master’s degree in engineering at UB, Greatbatch was working on a device intended to record heart sounds. By accident, he grabbed the wrong kind of resistor from a box full of parts. As soon as he installed it, he realized his mistake.
But in the next moment, he recognized the monumental significance of this error. With this resistor, he wasn’t just recording sound—he was actually creating a pulse; a pacemaker.
Early pacemakers existed at this point, but only as external devices that had to be plugged into an electrical outlet. With his accidental discovery, Greatbatch thought he could build a pacemaker small enough to be implanted in the human body. And in collaboration with his Buffalo colleagues, this accidental discovery became one of the most significant medical innovations of the 20th century.
His invention has impacted thousands of cardiac patients, and gave rise to the modern medical device industry. And all this started with a simple error. Where some may just have corrected the mistake and moved on, Greatbatch shifted his thinking to solve an entirely different problem.
In every field—whether our graduates are defining a new musical genre or exploring new frontiers in space—there will always be new problems to solve, unexpected challenges to confront head-on. This is the creative process. And as Greatbatch showed us, the creative process involves taking chances. It requires the confidence to alter our perceptions, veer from defined paths—in essence, to take risks.
UB has a proud tradition of intellectual risk-taking. Our UB students haven’t just learned from the relative safety of textbooks and lectures. They have contributed actively to the creation of new knowledge. They have worked first-hand with faculty at the cutting edge of their fields. They have been out in front as new discoveries are made, and new hypotheses are tested.
There is nothing riskier—or more rewarding—than being one of the first to venture a new idea, a new approach to an age-old problem. Just like Wilson Greatbatch, generations of UB students have made their own bold leaps—and the results have been transformative.
What if Terry Gross, as a young UB undergraduate, had never entered the WBFO booth in the early days of college radio? NPR—and talk radio as we know it—might have taken an entirely different course.
What if Ellen Shulman Baker hadn’t taken her first UB geology class? Would she have ventured into outer space? What would the world have lost without her contributions as NASA’s chief medical officer?
What if Thomas Curley had never made the leap from studying film to helping create film? Would we have had the chance to hear his Oscar-winning sound mixing on Whiplash this year?
There are literally thousands of examples of UB alumni changing the world as we know it through their creativity and intellectual daring.
Now the Class of 2015 will continue that story. They will use their UB education to change the direction of their professions. They will push the boundaries of accepted knowledge. And they will change our world for the better.