Case for Curiosity by Prof. Magdalena James-Pederson

August 29, 2012


By now you have heard the expression "curiosity killed the cat". This line sounds like something Ron Weasley would say upon finding the petrified cat in the story Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Of course, Hermione, the voice of reason, would tell him that it was in fact a basilisk that killed the cat, not curiosity.

If you were to look up the meaning of "curiosity  killed the cat" in unreliable Wikipedia, you will find that it is meant to "warn of the dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation."   To someone who is passionate about science, this advice sounds totally absurd.

Lets set the record straight, the one thing curiosity kills, is boredom.  If you have been keeping up with the most recent news from N.A.S.A., you know that "Curiosity" landed on Mars three weeks ago.   It was a historic landing.  All across the world there was excitement when NASA's latest land rover, named "Curiosity", started to send high-resolution images of the Red Planet's landscape to Earth.  In my opinion, these are the only types of news worth "tweeting" about ...(and ONLY if done outside of class!). 

The images sent by "Curiosity" are truly spectacular and for a visual generation like yours, I want to encourage you to search for these images and videos (but please, wait until Convocation is over).  As the young generation would say, the visuals are "AWESOME."  These images serve as a symbol of what can be accomplished when we are curious about nature and we work diligently to explore and learn more about it.

It turns out that "Curiosity" is not only creating fanfare in space, but curiosity of a more conventional sort has a key role here on Earth.  In a recent publication in the journal Perspectives in Psychological Science, three scientists Sophie von Stumm, Benedikt Hell and Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic wrote about the qualities that lead to academic success.  Their research found that academic success sits like a stool on three legs.  The three legs are: Intelligence, Conscientiousness, and Curiosity.

As students of this institution I know you are very interested in having a successful journey through Stonehill College.   Some of you might feel confident about your future here, but I suspect that most of you are anxious about the outcome of this journey.  The truth is that you have more control over that outcome than you may think.

Lets very briefly consider the first two legs of that stool I mentioned: Intelligence and Diligence.  You have already shown that you are SMART.  Seriously... you wouldn't be here if you couldn't succeed in college.  You also know that "brains" is not everything.  Diligence or having a strong work ethic is also very important.  But you already knew that.  

Studying long hours... (without watching YouTube), attending class regularly... (but without texting), and completing assignments are key to success in college.  You have been hearing about these two qualities enough already.

What I really want to talk about is the third leg of the stool: curiosity. Having a hunger for exploration and learning. Curiosity is an insatiable desire for knowledge and it provides a sense of wonder and appreciation for life. 

But I want to give you fair warning that being interested on what "The Kardashians" are up to or about what Heidi Klum is wearing in "Project Runway" is not going to help you succeed at Stonehill. (If you are going to watch TV, "Myth Busters" is a better choice).

You need to show up to class eager to learn about the natural world around you, about the cultures of the world, and even about your own human existence.   Bring your hungry mind even to those courses that are not part of your major.

When you bring that curious energy to class, you inspire others around you.  You even inspire your professors.

Through my years of teaching I have encountered many students who have taught me the value of having a hungry mind.  For the sake of time, let me just tell you about one of them.  Kate Sullivan graduated last year. 

As many of you know, she is one of those students, whose curiosity was able, and is still able to influence many people, in and outside of the classroom.  At Stonehill Kate was in most ways no different than you.  She was inquisitive about many things: science, religion, foreign languages and most curious about the meaning of her life. 

She also had an interesting passion for learning about tropical parasites ... (of all things!).  So much so, that her eyes would sparkle in wonder when she talked about them.  It wasn't surprising that for her senior CAPSTONE she chose to conduct research on Chagas Disease, which is caused by the Trypanasome parasite. 

Most honorable is the fact that Kate's passion for learning about parasites led her to use that knowledge for a greater purpose. After earning her degree at Stonehill, Kate flew down to Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  She is still there volunteering her time to help patients infected with Wuchereria bancrofti .  This parasite causes swelling of the lymph nodes. 

In her blog she writes that the swelling can be so disabling that the patients end up "barred from social society". When I read Kate's narrative about her journey in Haiti, it reminds me of how privileged I am when I witness the fruits of curiosity. Everyone in this room has the potential to make a difference like Kate is doing. 

Curiosity is the key.  So please, do not just sit in class. Every class you take can be a place you have never been to. Bring your hungry mind to that place. All of us here need your curious energy. Today, I challenge you to carry your curiosity everywhere on this campus.   Don't leave your dorm without it.

The 2011 Hegarty Award Winner Professor Pederson gave these keynote remarks at Academic Convocation Tuesday, August 28th in the Sally Blair Ames Sports Complex.

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