Office Hours

The Interdisciplinary Initiative (Int-Init) is a group of students at Carnegie Mellon University who, in their own words, want to disrupt academic silos and support their peers in pursuing interests beyond traditional fields of inquiries. Before COVID-19 shuttered campus, they hosted two Not-A-Hackathon events. In addition, they created an Office Hours podcast to interview pairs of professors about interdisciplinary issues.

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Last April, Susan Finger and I had the honor to participate in an Office Hours conversation with Int-Init students Joyce Wang, Nihar Dalal, and Adhiti Chundur. We reflected on the magic of curiosity, the art of overcoming the “outsider” feeling in academic and social spheres, and the current challenges with online learning. You can listen in on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Soundcloud, and Spotify.


On May 19, 2012, I delivered the following keynote address at the Phi Beta Kappa initiation ceremony at Carnegie Mellon.

One of the self-indulgent pleasures that comes with delivering a keynote address is the freedom to address nearly any topic. I have decided to take this occasion to remind myself what I could be more attentive to, in my own life. While I believe these confessions will help you in your own future as you graduate from Carnegie Mellon University and enter the Phi Beta Kappa Society — for I wish I had received similar advice when I entered the society 26 years ago — in this lecture format, we will not be conversing one-on-one. As a result, it’s possible that you will find these remarks trivially true, on the one hand; or unhelpfully obscure, on the other. In either case: I beg your patience.

What is “patience”? An old-fashioned word; a woman’s name, like Hope, Prudence, Charity, or Grace; a quality that denotes forbearance. But notice: Patience as a moderating influence runs counter to the cultural practices within our university.

When I describe our university to prospective students — you may remember, once upon a time, you were a prospective student, and before that, a college applicant, uncertain of your prospects, uncertain as you are today about what the coming years will bring, uncertain as anyone who is honest about our inability to predict the future — when I speak to prospective students, I describe Carnegie Mellon as a place with the following characteristics: (1) We work hard. Don’t come here unless you also intend to work hard. We tend to conflate work and pleasure; we look to be passionate about what we do. (2) We work together. We love collaborating on projects and, if you have a good idea, you can find others will rally with you to make it happen. (3) We like to make things. We make tangible results, visible to the world.

This combination of qualities permeate the entire university. Give students at any other college a long weekend away from classes in the spring and you won’t get the marvelous traditions of Carnival, highlighted by Booth and Buggy. With your free time, you work hard to make things, together. In this way, the students, staff, and faculty here are always ON; we have trouble finding an off switch. We are driven by deadlines (assigned and met), by urgency.

In extreme, this type of urgency is the opposite of patiency. Because you have been educated in the pragmatism of urgency, I am here to tell you not to neglect the virtue of patience.

Ahh — you all might say to me if we were in conversation — you are wrong. We understand patience. We have practiced it for years, in the form of deferred gratification. As you just pointed out, we worked long hours to get where we are. And I would agree, my fellow Phi Betes, you certainly possess one type of patience: the ability to deny yourself immediate rewards for the sake of greater future rewards. If you had taken the marshmallow test as a child, I suspect each of you would have received two marshmallows after fifteen minutes, rather than only one marshmallow immediately, a strong indication of self-discipline or metacognition. Furthermore, you have witnessed how the university conducts its own affairs: Bill Dietrich’s gift to the university is an endowment that in turn disburses funds towards the university endowment — a slow but steady compounding of compounded interest, which certainly Ben Franklin and perhaps also Albert Einstein identified as a powerful force.

But these examples of deferring gratification presuppose a greater reward at a later time. What happens if the anticipated reward does not appear? Disappointment. Frustration. Anger. And there are many other forms of patience. In my own life, I need to strengthen the habit. Yesterday I waited for a bus for nearly an hour and found myself grinding my teeth. Last night I yelled at one of my children for striking the other. Grinding teeth and raising voice did not accomplish anything. Patience is a difficult virtue for me to practice.

This spring I’ve been taking scuba lessons, which has proven to be an unexpectedly good venue for practicing patience. Most fundamentally, a scuba diver must always breathe. Never, ever stop breathing, especially while changing depth. Ascend and descend in a controlled fashion. Breathe slowly and deeply, resolve any underwater problems clearly and methodically. As long as you are breathing, we beginning divers are taught, everything is going to be fine. Do not be hasty in your thoughts and you will be able to resolve any difficulties. Do not be rushed in your movements, and you can stay underwater longer. In short: be patient.

This semester, the students in my Meaning Across the Millennia course and I worked on the Earth Tapestry project, to invite all of humanity to help us determine which locations on our planet we should preserve in multiple archives, including on the surface of the Moon, for millions of years. This project, which draws upon time capsules and communication with extraterrestrial intelligence, is another example of patience, on the global level.

I encourage you to practice patience with others, especially when you are frustrated by people you love. I encourage you to practice patience when you find yourself in circumstances beyond your control, such as sitting in a black cap and gown when the sun shines brightly and the temperature soars above 80 degrees — don’t text, don’t surf the web, don’t complain, even to yourself. Keep Calm and Carry On. I encourage you to practice patience, which is a high form of tolerance, with others, listening to other points of view. American political discourse would become more civil if we could become more patient with our fellow citizens.

Most of all, I urge you to be patient with yourself.

Your life is not entirely in your control. It will continue to be filled with wonders and surprises, both joyful and tragic, and events that you will anticipate and dread. This is the adventure of life — we shouldn’t wish it any other way — we would be cursed if every plan we made turned out exactly as we hoped. Don’t dwell on your past successes and disappointments, but rather on the promise of the future. It’s OK (it’s more than OK) to fail. It’s OK (it’s more than OK) to be scared. Keep your expectations high, and pick yourself up again. Be patient with yourself. After all, you’re only human.

In ancient Greek thought, the soul and the breath were the same: psuche, from which we derive the words psyche and psychology. You cannot always be inspired – in fact, in order to be creative, you should admit a rhythm of intense focus, then relaxation. The process is like scuba: you cannot always be breathing in, always inspired.

I therefore encourage you to balance both urgency and patiency in your life. The message of urgency is: Live each day as though it were your last. Seize opportunities as they present themselves. The message of patiency is: Live each day as though it were your first. Life is long — although I wouldn’t recommend waiting a quarter century if you’re interested in becoming a scuba diver, because it’s a lot of fun.

In closing, as you commence the rest of your life this weekend, I encourage you to make patience a regular practice and — to be reflexive about it — be patient with yourself about becoming more patient.

Thank you for your forbearance this morning.

papers, please

Yesterday we held an event for new faculty in the Mellon College of Science. Here is roughly what I said:

In the spirit of Nikki Giovanni, the poet who spoke here on campus Monday, I want to share a story about one of my experiences as a young scientist. I’ve hardly ever told this before.

When I was an undergrad at Cornell, I loved being a scientist: my senior advisor taking us to Souvlaki House for pizza every Saturday, working in the lab, exploring the library stacks, just wandering the corridors and seeing what everyone was doing.

When I moved to Berkeley for graduate school in chemistry, my experience was quite different. Everything felt tight, starting with the rush to pick a research group and advisor in the first six weeks.

One afternoon I wandered the top floor of Latimer, peeking through windows, reading research posters. Someone, a junior professor at the time, rushed down the hall and confronted me: What are you doing? I want to see what kind of research is happening on this floor, I replied. Are you a student? Yes, I’m a new grad student. All right then, who is your research advisor? Birgit Whaley, I told him. There have been a lot of thefts around here: show me your ID. At this point I was nervous, trembling as I fumbled in my pocket, and finally produced the document. He gave it a very hard look, tossed it back at me, spun around on his heels, and left me alone, speechless. The message was quite clear: someone who looks like you doesn’t belong here.

I’m not telling this story merely to say that the Berkeley Chemistry Department was always a bad place for me in the mid 1980s and early 1990s – although it often was.

I’m telling this story because we professors, here at Carnegie Mellon in the year 2018, have to remember that we have an enormous impact on our students, our advisees, among ourselves and within the entire scientific community. We need to remind ourselves how much our words and actions affect others.

None of us is innocent. We have, all of us, committed wrong as well as been wronged throughout our lives in different ways, sometimes thoughtlessly: we all have implicit biases, somtimes most strongly and strangely against members of our own gender or ethnicity.

As the Assistant Dean for Diversity, I believe the best solution is to throw open the windows, be willing to be vulnerable and share a bit more about each other, to listen and to learn from others.

And then I described some of the resources and opportunities available to them in the areas of diversity and inclusion.

Pre-College welcome address

Every summer since 2005, I welcome more than a thousand students and family members arriving for the summer Pre-College program at Carnegie Mellon University. With slight variations, my remarks are substantially the same from year to year. Here is the speech I delivered today, retaining some of the punctuation marks I use privately to help when speaking aloud.

Welcome, students, families, and friends, to Carnegie Mellon.


I want to share with all of you some of my perspectives about the summer academic programs here. During the next six weeks as you walk around campus you will see other students your age who have decided to dedicate their summers to becoming finer artists in Architecture, Art and Design, Drama, and Music; who are learning how to design and develop video game technology; or who are focused on math and science. Of course I must also mention the students in the program I direct, the APEA Program, who are taking college classes from across the entire university: through the College of Engineering, College of Fine Arts, Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Mellon College of Science, School of Computer Science, and Tepper School of Business.

You will also see people on campus who are not your age. The life of this university, as with every institution, has a seasonality, and summer tends to be a quieter time on campus. I’m also here during the regular year as the Director of the Science and Humanities Scholars Program, and the kind of work I do for that program when most undergraduate students are away from campus is different than in the fall and the spring.

Nevertheless, the relative, apparent tranquility belies a great deal of activity. Undergraduates are taking classes too, sometimes alongside you, as well as doing research, and working on their art. Likewise, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, visiting scholars, and professors are all here on campus continuing to observe / to experiment / to write / to think / to create / to learn.

And now you are going to join them, here at Carnegie Mellon.
Your youthful energy / and your capacity for learning / enliven the university.
Welcome to our academic community.


For some of you, this is your first visit to campus. Those of you who were here last summer can share why you returned: because you enjoyed and learned well here. You recognize the quality of our faculty and staff, who work hard throughout the year to create the finest educational and student life experience we can offer during the summer. We want to be just as good – better – than we were last year. Be careful, however: even when if you are returning here, this summer will not be the same. You will be taking different classes with different professors and different classmates. Most significantly, you are different than you were last year.


Thirty-five years ago, in June 1981, I was about your age, between my junior and senior years of high school. That year I myself attended a summer program to take classes at another great university; in fact, five years ago I attended my 25th college reunion at that same place. For over three decades, I have held a certain fondness for the learning and teaching that can happen during the summer: I have taught, founded and directed summer programs across the country, and this is my eleventh summer here at CMU. Drawing upon these experiences, I have six perspectives to share with you about becoming a student in the Pre-College Program at Carnegie Mellon.


First, there must be a reason you are here, and you have to own that reason.

Earlier in the year, you might have had a number of reasons for applying here. Maybe you thought that succeeding here would be a way to prove something about yourself to yourself: to build a portfolio, to build a stronger academic record, to work towards an eventual career. Maybe you wanted to impress someone else, or maybe someone you know has been a student here in past summers, or is a current student in the fall and spring semesters. Your parents may have thought it would be a good experience for you… Maybe your friends are coming and you decided to be with them. Maybe you thought it would be fun. Maybe you just thought it would be a good way to occupy… your time. Maybe you thought it would be a chance to get away from home.

There may be any number of reasons that you have decided to come here this summer.
All of those reasons can be valid, as long as they can sustain you while you are here.

You need to decide for yourself what moves you, what motivates you to be here. The reasons may shift, but as Aristotle indicates in the Physics, there must be a cause that will motivate you through the long hours of work here, some reason that for the sake of which you are pushing yourself.

I hope for you that you find your summer academics to be challenging but not overwhelming.

Ultimately, you have to want to be here, because at times the work will not be easy.


Now the good news is that everyone here wants you to succeed, from your counselors to your professors. This brings me to my second point: your professors are people too. They were once as young as you were, they have dreams, their own families and friends. Most of us are nerds… … just like you. Get to know us. Ask us about our projects and interests, ask me about sending artifacts to the Moon next year. Our staff are amazing, also with their own lives. We know a great deal more than you do about many things, but we also know less than you do about certain things, such as where you come from and who you are.

This means that one of your primary goals here is to introduce yourself, by asking questions. You are responsible for your education.

You have arrived at an academic institution, where we are in the business of asking questions, of each other and of ourselves, and also finding answers that in turn can elevate us to new questions.

If you don’t understand something that’s going on in your class, ask. That’s the culture of higher education, we are not going to check as frequently as you may be accustomed to in high school, it is your responsibility to ask if you don’t understand.

Is there such a thing as a stupid question? … Yes. Don’t ask lazy questions – when I said the university is in the business of asking and answering questions, I meant that we are in the business of carefully wrought, well-considered questions. Being knowledgeable involves having one answer, but becoming more knowledgeable requires developing good questions.

So. If you encounter difficulty understanding or doing something, ask a good question. But since you are students still practicing how to ask a good question, when in doubt, go ahead and ask your question, keeping in mind there are degrees of quality in asking questions.


Third, make mistakes. Then learn from them.

Just as there are good questions and not-so-good questions, there are good ways to put yourself in situations where you might mistakes and not-so-good ways to put yourself in situations where you might make mistakes. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference beforehand. But trust me, it would be a bad mistake for you to sit in front of a glowing screen all summer, rarely interacting face-to-face with students in the dormitory or dining hall or classroom, rarely talking with anyone else. Go out with a group of friends and walk across the bridges on Forbes Avenue, enjoying for free with your ID card the museums, conservatory, and entire public transporation network. Meet other students who are in completely different programs from you.

Good mistakes happen when you take a chance and do something that has not only the potential to harm you, but also to benefit you. If you don’t make good mistakes, then you haven’t taken enough risks, in your art, in your academics. If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough… you’re not living life.

If everything is going smoothly for you, talk to your instructors and step up the challenges for yourself.

Inevitably you will make mistakes. Good. Understand and acknowledge your mistakes, then learn from them.


Four, appreciate family and friends.

As you begin here this summer, you will have to let go of the familiar — your family and friends. You should recognize your roots, where you have come from, and you should stay grounded with your family even when you are away from them.

I recognize that this remark may not seem as relevant to those of you who attend prep school as residential students and are accustomed to being away from family, to those of you who have the privilege of living nearby and will be living with family this summer, to those of you who are returning students from last summer.

Nevertheless, this community is a separate place from your old friends and your family, and while you’re not going to stop being a son or daughter, sister or brother, your relationships with family and friends may change dramatically, in no small part because you yourself are at an age where you change so rapidly. Be patient and respectful of your roots, even though, if they are wise, your family will maintain a certain distance from you, to allow you to grow further into your own individual.

In the meantime, you will form close friendships here. At my college reunion, I met friends whom I hadn’t seen in years. But even though so much time had passed, we picked up like it was yesterday. Deep friendships formed around common academic interests can last a lifetime. Get to know your colleagues.


Fifth, be honest with yourself and be honest with others. We encourage you to work together but you must not misrepresent yourself or your work. Several summers ago, two students went home after severe academic integrity violations. I know this is sometimes not as easy as it sounds; I will say more about this when I meet the APEA students this afternoon. Be honest with yourself, and be honest with others.


Finally, appreciate the moment. Set priorities for yourself. Your families can tell you how quickly years go by. Let me tell you, as much as can happen in six weeks, as much as you can learn, it goes fast. Follow your heart, your passion, work hard, play well and enjoy the summer. And one day, perhaps even thirty-five years from now, you will look back on this summer and remember it as one of the most important times of your life.

Welcome again to Carnegie Mellon.

Phi Beta Kappa charge

As chapter president for the Carnegie Mellon chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, since Fall 2012 I have delivered the charge to new initiates. Here are my remarks from today, in which I “speak briefly on the ideals of the Society and the responsibilities of membership”.

Phi Beta Kappa is an American institution. This afternoon I would like to talk about what that means for you as a new member of our society – not because I necessarily embrace American exceptionalism, the notion that the United States has a particular destiny to fulfill that renders us superior to other nations, but rather because I do believe that America is exceptional, and that history can be instructive.

Imagine an era when the United States is suffering through uneasy times. Imagine, if you can, a time when the country is at war, with enormous costs borne by human lives and by circumstances that indebt us deeply to another overseas nation. Imagine a time when per capita income, after years of steady growth, is plummeting; when Americans are driven from their homes; when the very underpinnings of the American monetary system depend upon the financial system of another country. Not surprisingly, during this time, the citizenry is divided about what course of action to take, holding fundamentally different political assumptions about what should become of the United States, and about what the proper rights and responsibilities of individuals, states, and the nation should be with respect to each other, including profound divisions on issues such as fair taxation and involvement in foreign affairs.

These are the sorts of troubles that afflicted the loose affiliation of the states united in 1776, when our society Phi Beta Kappa was founded, and if we somehow should ever find ourselves again in a similar, dire time as a nation or as individuals, we can look back to that history and draw some lessons.

They were human beings, which is to say they were both like and unlike us, those young men at the College of William & Mary who started our society. Muddling through their lives, they sought to form a society that represented some of their highest ideals. It takes a certain serious playfulness to form such a club, which is now the oldest academic honor society. Those young men, whose bones are now everywhere dust, created something that still endures today, by virtue of their focus on a spirit of companionship, zest for life, and quest for knowledge.

These qualities are captured by the motto for the society, which I believe is a retronym constructed from the letters Phi Beta Kappa. That motto is Φιλοσοφία Βίου Κυβερνήτης — generally translated as “The love of learning is the guide of life.” But when I see those words, I also see the academic disciplines Philosophy, Biology, and Cybernetics. Philosophy we recognize here at Carnegie Mellon as a department in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Biological Sciences in the Mellon College of Science, but Cybernetics as an interdisciplinary study is less well-known these days. The name of that discipline was coined by Norbert Wiener and, while it connects many fields, one might say that it belongs to the School of Computer Science. So the motto for our society, Φιλοσοφία Βίου Κυβερνήτης, embraces three departments within those colleges at Carnegie Mellon from which we generally seek initiates into the society.

Now – as during its formation – the Phi Beta Kappa society is connected to but also distinct from your formal academic studies. So no matter which of the colleges is your home, this society now belongs equally to every one of you.

Having just presented a Carnegie Mellon (Upsilon of Pennsylvania)-centered account of how the Phi Beta Kappa motto relates to our own university, and having heard earlier from our historian about the society’s symbols, I will now present a more personal interpretation of the key that symbolizes our society. The three main design elements on the obverse face are the pointing hand, three Greek letters, and three clustered stars. The earthbound hand on the key is pointing towards something, but what? Most directly, it’s pointing towards the letter Beta. But if you follow the trajectory of the gesture, it is pointing towards the stars, as though to visually indicate, through means of the society Phi Beta Kappa, you can reach the stars.

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That constellation of stars indicates something simultaneously unreachable yet visible, something accessible to human thought and analysis, which suggests a quest for knowledge. Moreover, the fact that we see a constellation or asterism, a group of stars, suggests that the hand is pointing towards a union, a society. And I would go even further. I suggest that the hand is actually not pointing to the stars themselves, but is pointing between the stars, that is, beyond the stars. If you follow the gesture closely, you may also see: the hand is pointing towards some essence that is even beyond the visible, yet we might somehow be guided towards its direction by following the path of fellowship and by searching for knowledge.

We are poised at this moment between the past and the future. We are also at the border between the dust and the heavens. We approach our finest possibility by navigating through life // with the love of the search for knowledge as our guide. This guide, the love of the search for knowledge, conducted in fellowship, will help us to navigate that fine strait between humiliation and hubris – to become more fully human.

Phi Beta Kappa was originally intended as a haven for free discussion of timely issues and timeless ideas, during an era of revolution and social upheaval. Let us carry forth the example of the initial members of the society, and ourselves serve for future years and generations – to attend to, reflect upon, discuss, and take action on issues and ideas. Let us conduct ourselves so that we may improve ourselves as well as the greater societies of family, friendship, city, nation, and world. Let us display our love for wisdom as a guide for life.

In closing, remember: there may come a time when you as individuals, or the children who one day may smile with you, or your neighbors and their children … will live during a time of war, economic hardship, political friction, and personal hardship. If you should ever find your nation and yourself in that situation, extend your hands in a reach for higher knowledge, shake hands with others in fellowship, and use your hands to build for our broader society. I wish for all of you the best in these times and those to come.

the lab is a dangerous place

I delivered these remarks on March 3, 2005, at Bard High School Early College, towards the end of my tenure there as their first Associate Dean of Studies. BHSEC is a public school where graduates receive an associate degree from Bard College along with a high-school Regents Diploma from New York State. Towards the end of the institution’s fourth year of existence, during its second year on the Lower East Side, we formally opened some badly needed laboratories.

It’s all too easy for me, as a theoretical and computational scientist, to forget the importance of the work that goes on in a laboratory. And for those here today who rarely step forward into a lab, the place can seem quite foreign, filled with strange devices and artifice that have little to do with everyday experience.

We must remind ourselves that a laboratory is a place to observe and measure the world, the same world we all occupy. The equipment in a laboratory may be less familiar than the books in a library, but both facilities are essential to education.

Earlier this school year at Bard High School Early College we opened a new library, and now we open these new laboratories.

A laboratory is : to a scientist :: as a library is : to every scholar.

In a library, we become directly engaged with what other people have thought and seen. Reading and understanding what others have seen and thought is essential, because this takes us outside ourselves, and enriches our own insights and discussions. In a laboratory, we engage directly with what we ourselves think and see. I want to emphasize that point: in a laboratory, we see for ourselves. We think for ourselves. It doesn’t matter what presidential or papal decrees may state — in a scientific laboratory, we the people have in our hands the authority to confirm or reject established doctrine.

I am verging on talk of revolution here… but consider. Let us count among early modern scientists Galileo and Newton, Faraday and Maxwell, Mendel and Darwin, Lavoisier and Mendeleev and Curie. It is no coincidence these scientists lived during times connected with religious and political and artistic upheavals that celebrate the individual, and sometimes even they themselves were catalysts for revolution. To cite another example, fairly familiar: the Benjamin Franklin who conducted experiments with electricity is the same person who dared to revolt against one of the most powerful empires in world history, and to propose the experiment of our nation, built upon the rights of the individual. As Americans, we are inheritors of this tradition of open questioning.

Along with the library, the laboratory is an essential structure for a proper liberal arts education. The laboratory and the library are dangerous places, because they have the capacity to liberate students, elevating them to citizens who are able to criticize and to create for themselves, by themselves.

The capacity to see and think for ourselves, and to be careful and honest as we convey our observations and theories to other people, is central to the liberal arts education that we provide here at Bard.

It is possible to overstate the importance of science, and laboratories, and anything occupied with our material world. These rooms — two biology and chemistry laboratories and a dedicated lab prep room — in conjunction with another existing adjacent lab, and on the same floor as additional labs for geology and for physics — these rooms are simply rooms, after all. They will require additional equipment, just as a library always needs more books. And, without a dedicated faculty and engaged students, they are simply beautiful shells.

The opening of this new laboratory is nonetheless an extraordinarily joyful occasion for Bard — a cause for immense celebration — for the promise of education in the liberal arts. I thank in general those who made this possible, some of whom Professors Cordi and Gamper will later thank by name. Let us keep in mind that the true dedication of these facilities will occur over weeks, semesters, and years to come, as students work together with professors ~ at the difficult task of learning ~ how to see and think for themselves.