By Kendra J. Golden

I have spent a good portion of my professional life peering through the lenses of microscopes and teaching others to do the same.  Students who are new to using microscopes will sometimes tell me they are frustrated by the instruments.  At first it’s hard to get a sense of the scale of things, and they end up looking at air bubbles or dust instead of bacteria.  With a little practice and guidance, they eventually get it right, but even then, looking at things on such a small scale, they will tell me they yearn to look at the “big picture.”  With a bit more time and patience, they realize that what they’re seeing is the big picture, or at least an important part of it.

On the other side of that lens is a world every bit as infinite and vast as the world on this side.  The lens of the microscope has been key to our acknowledgement that there is this amazing universe beyond our immediate consciousness as well as to our collective realization that what we can’t see with our naked eyes impacts us in enormous ways and will continue to impact us in the future in ways we can’t even imagine.

Take for example the fact that the parasite that causes malaria caused 660,000 deaths in 2010 (World Health Organization, 2013), or that more than 2,200 children under the age of 5 die every day because of diarrheal disease due to microbes in their water (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012).  One of the very real issues that some of my students and I have looked at is the increasing number of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.  Annually, multidrug-resistant tuberculosis causes 150,000 deaths (World Health Organization, 2012).  Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus-related hospitalizations in the U.S. alone more than doubled between 1999 and 2005 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2007).  The prospect of a “post-antibiotic era” alludes to a potentially terrifying world in which bacterial diseases can no longer be treated.  The search continues for alternative therapies.

On the other hand, consider that the bacteria that live on and in us outnumber our own cells by a ratio of about 10:1.  Their impact on our health and well-being is immense.  These 100 trillion bacteria consider us their home and are in constant, intimate communication with our own cells.  Among other things, they contribute to the proper functioning of our immune systems, including the ability to fight infection and fend off chronic autoimmune diseases, and they accomplish this using tactics that we’re only just beginning to unravel (CalTech News, 2011).

In addition, microbes are capable of incredible feats of metabolism and may be our saviors in the world of global warming and climate change with their capabilities for bioremediation and decomposition.  A student who worked in my lab this spring discovered a bacterium in a local soil sample that was capable of producing a biosurfactant.  He hopes to study biological mechanisms for extracting oil from oil sands.  All of these examples illustrate the relationship of the microscopic to the macroscopic, of which we would be oblivious were it not for looking through the appropriate lens.

That first time one dials a microscope into alignment, and the blurry image sizzles into crystal clarity, is for many the first time they really become engaged with or are even aware of the microscopic world.  For me, this encounter became life-defining.  Though my hope is that every student will find the microscopic lens equally fascinating, every individual will naturally take away his or her own interpretations of the experience.

In reality, I am of course using the lens of a microscope as a metaphor for viewing the world from unique and individual perspectives.  And though lenses do bring things into focus, it is up to the viewer to connect that image, the merest slice of existence, to the rest of the universe.  In the best case for students in my classes, their burgeoning microscope skills coincide with grasping the idea that “Hey!  This is only one lens!  And if this one lens opens up on this whole other world, what other lenses are there?  What other worlds?  If I only had the right lens, what would I see?  What do other people who are using different lenses think about?  How and why do their views differ from mine, and where do they intersect?”

In essence, what I’ve just described is what I believe to be the great splendor and strength of a liberal arts education, and why I feel so extremely fortunate to have taught here for the past 23 years.  In this environment, we are encouraged to think critically, to listen respectfully and to engage in vigorous discourse.  This vibrant community reminds me of a gigantic Venn diagram.  There are many constituents, and you can group them into sets and subsets, all looking through different lenses, all with different perspectives.  And though we may end up agreeing to disagree, we overlap on a common mission in the search for meaning and purpose, posing problems and solutions, identifying conflicts and resolutions.  No matter what the lens, the information acquired from it is valuable.  We use the information to inform our perceptions of the world, and we borrow from the views through other peoples’ lenses to fill in the gaps of our own understanding.

And this is where I gently challenge you:  Find the right lens.  Microscope, telescope, camera lens, scuba mask, your prescription glasses … whatever form it might take, find your lens.  Whatever your lens focuses on, keep in mind that it is a part, no matter how small, of the big picture.  It is your piece of the puzzle, and it will be up to you to determine how and where it fits.

It is common in graduation season speeches to encourage students to choose something to struggle with, because that in turn fosters dedication and hard work and subsequently accomplishment and personal development.  There is nothing whatsoever wrong with that advice, and I’m certain everyone here who’s graduating tomorrow will choose to take on numerous challenges throughout the courses of their lives.  One of your most difficult endeavors may include finding exactly which lens is right for you.  Try not to struggle too hard or be impatient in this quest, as the answer will come in due time.  Derive inspiration from those who have come before you.  Remember their qualities.  Admire your heroes and emulate their best traits.  Heed the wisdom of your family and your friends.  Do what you love.  There will be that sudden, sharp, indescribable clarity as an image or a cluster of seemingly unrelated thoughts comes into focus, and you’ll know you’ve found it.

One word of caution:  never forget that life can be viewed through many lenses, and the one that may be right for you today will undoubtedly need to be exchanged for a new model later.  You will probably need to change lenses more than once, and you will even need to use multiple lenses on any given day, as you take on the various roles you will play in life.  Don’t be afraid to change lenses.  Rather, embrace and relish the opportunity to refocus.  Don’t succumb to the temptation to view the world through rose-colored lenses, but instead have the courage to face the sometimes daunting realities head-on, as well as accept and appreciate the exquisite beauty you will find.  It won’t always be easy, but your Whitman education is a precious gift that will see you through the challenges of doing this.  Your lens might reveal something unusual – even controversial – but you needn’t waiver in your convictions.  Be receptive to criticism but hold steadfast to the things you know in your heart to be true.  There is an old saying, “Popular opinion may not always be right, and the right opinion may not always be popular.”  Expect that there will be times when your opinion is not the popular one.
In addition, let us not necessarily restrict our lens-viewing to visual pathways.  In the course of searching for your lens, do not neglect the power of the lens of your mind’s eye.  Maybe you will perceive the world through this lens in a way that no one before you ever has.  This lens is free, and it is available anytime and anywhere.  In the course of your noble struggles, occasionally take respite in the freedom of using this lens.  Try to remember what it was like to view the world from a child’s eye lens.  Let your imagination do the talking from time to time, and leave yourself room for quiet introspection.  Indulge yourself and daydream through the lens of your mind’s eye, even as you pursue with gusto and dedication your goals and dreams.

Finally, don’t be afraid to share what you discover through your lens.  Shout it from the hilltops or quietly write it down, play it on an instrument or paint it in a picture, but take pride in your aspirations and achievements.  Your perspective is as unique as you are and deserves to be heard.  To quote Buddha, “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened.  Happiness never decreases by being shared.”  Nor will the import of your innovations and insights be diluted by sharing them.  On the contrary, they will be multiplied thousands of times.

As I look out over this audience, I recollect with great fondness the many students with whom I have had the privilege of interacting, some of whom remain my friends to this day.  And once again, I am reassured that we are putting our planet in good hands.  Though the world is fraught with serious problems, I find strength and fortitude in the knowledge that there is hope, which I can see in the seats in front of me.  So … good luck finding your lens.  In all my years of teaching, I have never been disappointed with the unique view of the world afforded me by the lens of my microscope, and I wish you an incredible journey finding yours. 

Works Cited

CalTech News. 21 April 2011. 10 May 2013. Learning to Tolerate Our Microbial Self.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 4 September 2012. 10 May 2013. Global Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH): Global WASH Fast Facts.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Emerging Infectious Diseases. Volume 13, Number 12.

                  December 2007. 10 May 2013.Hospitalizations and Deaths Caused by Methicillin-Resistant
                  Staphylococcus aureus, United States, 1999–2005.

World Health Organization. March 2013. 10 May 2013. Malaria.
World Health Organization. March 2012. 10 May 2013. Antimicrobial Resistance.