Convocation 2012

Ed D. Lazowska
Vollum Award for Distinguished Accomplishment in Science and Technology
2012 recipient

Lazoqska photo
Ed D. Lazowska

Thank you, Jim, for that really lovely introduction and testimonial. I appreciate it tremendously. Thank you, President Kroger, students, parents, and faculty.

It’s a tremendous honor to be with you today, to receive the Vollum Award and to say a few words at the start of Reed’s one hundred and second year.

Howard Vollum’s company, really brought electronics technology to the Pacific Northwest, and the past recipients of the Vollum Award are an extraordinary group.

Reed College—I don’t need to tell any of you—is one of the nation’s preeminent undergraduate institutions, with just an extraordinary record of sending students on to change the world in tremendous ways, be it as Rhodes Scholars or PhDs.

Today I thought I’d address the Class of 2016 with a few words about my own college career.

Just like each of you, I was a strong student in high school, and managed to wrangle my way into a top college.

I arrived not knowing what to expect, but expecting that college would somehow be very different from high school. The uncertainty about what it would take to succeed was exciting, and a bit terrifying.

Absent any better idea, I set out just as I had for the previous four years. I went to class faithfully. I studied nonstop. I absorbed predigested knowledge just voraciously.

I got the top score on the midterm in a large freshman chemistry class, larger than any class you’ll ever have at Reed. The professor fawned over me, trying to get me to become a chemistry major. Rather than energizing me, this sent me into a deep funk. Was it really the case that I was facing four more years of grinding away like in high school? It really was a nightmare.

Here’s what saved me. On a lark, during second semester, as I was tanking all my other courses because of my funk, I enrolled in a computer science course—back when a computer with the power of an iPhone was the size of a building.

It was unlike anything I had ever attempted. It was creative. It was empowering. It was collaborative. It was intellectually challenging. It was mesmerizing—hours and days would disappear.

As a sophomore, I was conscribed as a teaching assistant for the course, and as a member of the research group of phenomenal faculty member Andy van Dam, who is still a dear friend today and who is still teaching at Brown—a research group that consisted almost entirely of undergraduates.

Andy was the first person in my life who treated me as an intellectual adult—as a true peer. Rather than being asked to absorb predigested knowledge, I was being challenged to figure out how to do things that Andy didn’t know how to do, and that really no one had ever done before. What we did, more than 40 years ago, was to use a multi-million-dollar mainframe computer as a PC. We were designing a what-you-see-is-what-you-get hypertext text editor – sort of Microsoft Word plus the web today. We had ourselves a time-travel machine: we were inventing software systems that wouldn’t become practical for several decades, when the hardware caught up.

That’s the sort of experience I wish for each of you, here at Reed, and there’s no better place to get that experience. Find something that’s creative, empowering, collaborative, intellectually challenging, mesmerizing. Get out of the pre-digested knowledge rut. Find faculty members who have incredible expectations for what you can achieve, and who make you a partner in discovery. Open your mind to the possibilities. You’ve come to the right place.