U.S. Secretary of Energy Addresses Graduates at NYU-Poly’s 156th Commencement

Raised the son of a professor of chemical engineering at what was then Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu had an ample store of NYU-Poly memories to draw from as he addressed the graduating class of 2011 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center as its keynote speaker and recipient of an honorary doctorate in engineering. A Nobel laureate and former director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Dr. Chu chose to focus his attention on Professor Donald Othmer, the world-renowned chemist who spearheaded NYU-Poly’s Department of Chemical Engineering for many years.

First asking how many students had Googled his commencement speeches at other schools — hands rose in response — Dr. Chu promised the audience an original speech. “The tyranny of the Internet demands fresh material,” he said to laughter.

Dr. Chu then recalled Dr. Othmer’s frequent visits to the Chu home and the descriptions his father would use to describe his colleague at Poly: good, kind. At no point was Dr. Othmer described as a rich man, and yet that was what he was: At the time of his death, Dr. Othmer and his wife were worth more than $800 million due to investments suggested by their longtime friend, Warren Buffett. The money was subsequently donated to various charities, and the Othmers’ gift to Poly became the largest ever made to a university at that time. Dr. Chu told the graduates: “When you are old and gray and look back on your life, you will want to be proud of what you have done. The source of that pride won’t be the things you acquired or the recognition you received. Instead, it will be the lives you touched and the difference you made.”

Smiling, Dr. Chu concluded, “I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: You, the class of 2011, are part of a proud tradition at Poly.”

Grand Works = Big Networks

Appreciative applause greeted Dr. Chu’s speech, which continued a theme opened by NYU-Poly President Jerry Hultin in his welcome address. Remembering Mark Twain’s famous quote — “Keep away from those who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you believe that you too can become great” — President Hultin urged the graduating class to affiliate with those who “take the risks of thinking big.”

U.S. Congressman Anthony Wiener also recognized the importance of social bonds during his congratulatory remarks. Drawing laughs by first telling his audience, “You have an advantage that many people don’t: You’re from New York City,” Congressman Wiener ended on a more serious note: “One of the lessons you learn here is that we are the world’s greatest network in every sense of the word.”

Valedictorian Sean Mahase, who was awarded a bachelor’s degree in biomolecular science, told his fellow classmates, “As alumni, we are an unbreakable chain of scientists, engineers, designers, managers, inventors, innovators, entrepreneurs and humanitarians.”

The speeches were praised by Mohamad Roudiani and his wife, the proud parents of Nazanin Roudiana, who graduated with a master’s in biomedical engineering. “They were good,” he said. “Today is one of the best days of our lives.”

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