Remarks by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., at the 10th annual Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Technology Undergraduate Research Showcase
November 9, 2012
It is a pleasure to be with you today. And it was a pleasure to listen to some of you describe your work. I was proud for you, and I was proud for your faculty.
In my experience, this is DePaul at its best. This is the intellectual life in action. All of you are trying to understand the world just a little bit better, and you put yourself out there; you let yourself be critiqued. That is, perhaps, the most challenging part of this intellectual process — the critique. You may think it happens just here in school, and yet it is not true. If you want to be part of the intellectual life, this pattern of hypothesis, research, analysis and criticism never ends. It is a lifelong journey both humbling and thrilling, but if done correctly, always humbling.
Failure has been on my mind lately. I have been reading a new book by Kathryn Schulz, entitled, “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.” The book is a rather enjoyable trove of stories of error and the foundation they formed for the world’s betterment. It’s a light-hearted way to remind us that the entire foundation upon which the intellectual life sits is the willingness to be wrong, and by extension, that the requirement for being a scholar is the willingness to be wrong.
This reflection on the underside of human progress is no theoretical exercise. At this very moment, a colleague of mine is sitting at home writing her doctoral dissertation for an Ivy League school. She is going to argue, after having examined very large national data sets, that what people have thought up to this point in her field of study is wrong. Then she is going to have to own up and admit that everything she thought going into this project was wrong. And, in fact, she is going to have to say that none of us have figured out the answer yet and that we must search in a new direction because the old explanation does not hold up against the data. That is going to be her dissertation’s major finding and it is going to be an important contribution because of the thoroughness of her research.
If you read the New York Times, and I hope many of you do, there is a recurring column authored by a succession of medical doctors. Each column describes a situation where the doctor describes the symptoms of a person whose case was particularly nettlesome to diagnose. The column has the most predictable plot you could imagine. Generally, the patient has been to many doctors who collectively misdiagnosed and, therefore, incorrectly treated him or her. Not unlike the stories of big game hunters of old, the doctor recounts the hunt of finding the correct diagnosis. If there are villains in this drama, they are those medical professionals who had the symptoms in front of them and refused to believe that they were wrong—even when the symptoms were not getting better. And where there are heroes, of course, there are those who finally admitted to being wrong and only then could open their eyes afresh and see the truth. That is the intellectual life, and that is the life you are joining today.
This is the 10th anniversary of this student research conference. For 10 years now, your faculty have been giving you an extraordinary gift—the chance to be scientists, to ask important questions, to work through the process, and to learn from it. They are teaching you far more than science, math and geography. Your faculty are teaching you to become a researchers and to join the intellectual life. Your faculty are bringing you into a community—an inquiring community that questions one another.
While this poster session may have been a new experience for you, if you continue in this life, this will become an absolutely normative experience. As you put your ideas out there, you will essentially submit them to others who will ask the hard questions or push you to see something that you did not see. That is how the world advances.
Your faculty could have taught, gone home and collected their paychecks. But they did not. They spent extra time with you. For months, they and your college staff worked hard to make today possible. They did this because they believe in you and what you might one day contribute. Cherish this gift. Thank them for it.
In that same spirit, I congratulate you and thank you for your own wonderful work. Thank you for putting your work out there. The world will be better for it.
View photographs from the event