Professory Bleakley Offers Keynote Address to New Students and Graduating Seniors

August 31, 2016


Associate Professor of Biology Brownyn Bleakley Ph.D

On Wednesday, August 31, Associate Professor of Biology and 2015 Louise F. Hegarty Award for Excellence in teaching recipient Brownyn Bleakley Ph.D. gave the keynote speech at Stonehill’s annual welcome convocation. Below are her full remarks:

Good afternoon. Welcome back to the seniors and all of my colleagues. Welcome to Stonehill to the freshmen. My name is Bronwyn Bleakley and I’m a biologist and a teacher and a science nerd. Over the course of the next four years, I’ll get to share class time with, at best, 10% of the students in this room. So, I’d like to spend the next few minutes telling all of you a few of the biology stories that have helped me develop the lenses through which I view the world and that encompass my best advice for thriving in college and growing into the post-grad world. I also hope you’ll take this time to be as amazed and inspired as I am every day at the truly wondrous world around us. To give you some illustrations for these stories, I’ll be putting pictures on the screen to your left.

When I was 14, we launched the Hubble telescope into orbit with the most powerful set of mirrors that had ever been made. The mirrors for a telescope, like the lenses for microscopes, are made through an arduous process that begins with grinding the glass and ends with finer and finer polishing. Hubble went up with more than one mirror because developing a complete view of the world requires a set of different lenses that each provide different views. Humans can see the range of light wavelengths we refer to as the visible spectrum of light. But many animals use filters that expand what they can see beyond the visible spectrum. Mantis shrimp provide an important lesson in being willing to develop new lenses: they have complex eyes that allow them to see ALL wavelengths of light. They’re the only group of animals known to be able to see a kind of light called circular polarized light and we realized, only when we switched the lenses through which we were viewing their behavior, that they use these wavelengths to send each other secret messages.

No matter the lenses we arrive at Stonehill with, we can develop new ones. One of the most important tasks we have as scholars is to continuously work to develop an ever-clearer set of lenses through which we can change our perspective to better document and understand our world. The natural world continuously provides new lenses for me and these are some of its stories.

My FIRST piece of advice is to chart your own course. There is no one single right path to success. Bread crumb sponge isopods are small crustaceans that live inside sponges found in the Sea of Cortez. As a rule, male bread crumb sponge isopods come in three morphs, or types, that look and behave quite differently. Alpha males are very large and work to assemble and defend a group of females. A male does this by staking out a territory in a chamber of a sponge and rebuffs other alpha males by wedging himself into the opening. If a new female wants to join his group, she petitions for entry with an elaborate dance that includes tickling the male’s tail. Beta males don’t waste energy fighting alpha males for territories. Instead, they’ve evolved to look and act just like females, including producing the same elaborate dance to gain access to the sponge. Gamma males don’t bother with either of these energy intensive strategies. Instead, they take advantage of their small size and simply sneak in. Each morph is the most successful at least some of the time, depending on environmental conditions. Just as there is no single right way to be a successful bread crumb sponge isopod, there is no single right way to become a dentist, an art historian, or an accountant. While there will certainly be pre-requites for graduate programs and skills you need for jobs, you can follow your own road to get them. Make time to go abroad, play a sport, start a club, or do a year of service. Make a plan, play to your strengths, and chart your own course. As Oscar Wild said, “Be yourself, everyone else is taken.”

Second, plan ahead but accept uncertainty: Red knots are migratory shore birds that travel 18,000 miles round trip every year between their feeding grounds at the tip of South America and their breeding grounds above the Northwest passages in the Canadian arctic. They likely learn the route from older birds, because everyone starts out as a novice and it is a very long journey. They must first feed enough to fly 2/3 of the journey without stopping for food. And they must begin the journey each time not knowing what they’ll find at any way point nor their destination. Despite the uncertainty, they undertake the journey twice each year and over the course of a lifetime these birds fly nearly half a million miles – so many miles that they are sometimes referred to as moon birds because some fly far enough to reach the moon and return home twice over. Human life is full of uncertainties, from the small scale, like whether you’ll avoid the flu long enough to finish midterms, to the larger scale like what the job market will look like when you graduate. But uncertainty does not mean looming disaster, it can also mean opportunity. Mary Oliver wrote “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” Don’t let the uncertainty paralyze you. Ask your professors, your peer mentor, or your internship supervisor for advice about managing your workload, divide your goals into small attainable pieces, and a little before you think you are ready, start your flight.

Next, learn to fail and try again: Tardigrades, sometimes called water bears or moss piglets, are microscopic animals that live anywhere there is water, from deep sea trenches to the tops of mountains. They’re soft and essentially defenseless – they’re not venomous or clawed, they’re not graceful or fast. But they have a superpower: they persist. Tardigrades can withstand temperatures ranging from −458 to 300°F, pressures five times greater than those found in the deepest ocean trenches, and the ionizing radiation and vacuum of outer space. No really, scientists put them outside the space shuttle for a while and they are fine after they rehydrate and have a snack! But they’re not evolutionarily adapted to thrive under those conditions. Rather, they’re simply very good at persevering. They assess degrading conditions, take a nap to let the trouble pass, and try again. Experiments fail (believe me, experiments fail), a test won’t go as well as you hoped, someone else will get the job you wanted. Everyone fails. The key is to keep trying. If you’re not good at something the first time or through your first semester, keep going. The artist Mary Anne Radmacher said “Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I'll try again tomorrow.” Don’t avoid trying because you might fail. Success in anything is ultimately built on persistence. Ask for help, accept constructive criticism, rest, and try again. You’ll get there.

Along those lines, be willing to ask for and give help – It may surprise you to learn that plants and fungi form complex networks through which they can communicate electrically and chemically and through which they give each other resources. One of my favorite examples involves two different species of tree, paper birch and Douglas fir, that are linked by a fungus. Mycorrhizal fungi cover the roots of plants, helping the plants to obtain water and nutrients. In the summer, Douglas fir seedlings are often shaded out by larger trees, unable to effectively photosynthesize without good access to light. Throughout this lean season, paper birch send carbon to Douglas fir seedlings via their mycorrhizal network. During the winter, the evergreen Douglas fir retains its leaves and increases photosynthesis while paper birch trees lose their leaves and stop photosynthesis. Douglas fir then return the summer favor, sending carbon back to their neighbors. The largest tree in a neighborhood has many many connections to younger trees and can help build up the trees with fewer resources. Maya Angelou said “When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed.” Everyone needs help sometimes. We were made to get help and to give it. It’s how we weave lives of purpose and accomplish both great and small things. Frequent small acts of kindness will connect you to your community. As Alexander McCall Smith says “So the small things came into their own: small acts of helping others, if one could; small ways of making one's own life better: acts of love, acts of tea, acts of laughter.” Ask for what you need and give help generously to those around you.

Speaking of those around you, cultivate diverse relationships – Guppies – I know you didn’t think you were getting out of here without hearing about guppies – help us understand our own human cooperative behavior because they interact with, learn from, and cooperate with other guppies to whom they are not related. Female guppies, in particular, form long-term pair bonds with each other and join together in larger groups that work together to learn where to find food and determine how to best avoid predators. Groups that approach tasks from diverse perspectives are more successful and pairs that work better together survive longer. Charles Darwin noted quite some time ago that “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” I know it’s hard to approach people you don’t know and ask to work with and get to know them. I study the behavior of the guppies because I hope it will one day help me understand the rules for interacting in big groups of people, which make me uncomfortable. But you can look forward to life-long rewarding friendships and the capacity to work effectively with people the world over if you are willing to step just a bit outside your comfort zone to talk with people you might otherwise not have met.

So here we are. You’ve had a whirlwind tour through some of my favorite organisms. You’d need a lot of different kinds of lenses to directly observe all of them. But I have one more piece of advice and you just need your typical human senses to fulfill it. Please, Go Outside. And spend some time wondering – When I was a graduate student trying to find my niche in research, I worried that all of the good questions had been answered and that there was no space left for me make discoveries of my own. But the mysteries of our world are endless and the human capacity for discovery is bright. In just the last month, we identified a new 25 ft long species of whale that somehow no one noticed before, we learned that zebra finches can sing to their eggs to prime their babies for the outside world, and we discovered a virus that infects its hosts in a completely new way. You don’t have to be a science major to appreciate or learn from these wonders. As an educator, I try to follow the advice of Antoine de Saint-Exupery who said “If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” My hope for you starting this year, whether you are just starting the journey of college, looking to begin a post-graduate life, or even planning retirement, is that you will yearn for the vast and endless sea of all the things we don’t know and that all of us in this room can work together to develop new and more polished lenses. With a set of lenses, resiliency, and the support of each other we can discover amazing new things. Just as Hubble’s mirrors allowed us to discover many new marvels of the universe, so too will new lenses allow you to discover the wonder of our world. Over the course of the next year, I hope you’ll be inspired by some different kinds of isopods, fly with a red knot, keep company with both giving trees and fungi and with cooperative guppies, and when necessary, nap like a tardigrade. Good luck.