University News

Professor encourages new students to ‘find their niche’

By
Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

President Ruth Simmons officially opened the University’s 246th year Wednesday afternoon, formally welcoming new members of the Brown community.

Following tradition, incoming students marched through the Van Wickle Gates to the Main Green as parents, equipped with camcorders and cameras joined other onlookers cheering from the sidelines. The class of 2013, in turn, forwarded the ovation to faculty members donning colorful robes as they walked down the aisle to take their seats.

The ceremony took a mirthful tone, but President Simmons’s speech did not overlook the realities of the economic times.

“This year, the fallout of the financial crisis will continue,” President Simmons said.
But while University services may be slower and events “less lavish,” Simmons said, the University will preserve “things of greater value.” For example, last year a donor contributed $30 million in support of financial aid, she said.

Simmons also cited current and upcoming construction projects as evidence that the Brown community had rallied in the face of economic challenge and that campus progress has not abated.

Following President Simmons, Professor of Biology Johanna Schmitt marked the year of Darwin’s 200th birthday by invoking a variety of evolutionary metaphors to welcome new students to campus. Schmitt drew on her expertise in evolutionary ecology for the subject of her keynote speech, entitled “Natural Selection in an Age of Global Change.”

Although 245 classes have preceded this year’s freshmen, Schmitt told the first-years that they had arrived at Brown in an “extraordinary year.” Beyond the particular economic climate, Schmitt said this year was special because of Darwin’s birthday.

Schmitt told the class of 2013 that while there is “overwhelming” evidence and consensus within the scientific community in favor of evolution, the theory remains a “social controversy,” especially in religious circles. She prompted students to accept or reject the theory of evolution, or any theory they encounter during their college careers, by examining the evidence with a critical eye.

Schmitt also addressed Darwin’s theory of natural selection in a contemporary context. Describing Darwin’s original theory that the essence of evolution is pure life-or-death competition between individuals as “overly simplistic,” she implored students to work collaboratively,  cautioning that selfish behavior may only have “short-term benefits.”
 “Cooperation and altruistic behavior will benefit you as well as the people around you,” she said. “So think about that during organic chemistry.”

Schmitt jokingly promised “gratuitous” advice at the start of her speech, and she kept her word.

“Structure your niche at Brown,” she encouraged the new students. “I challenge you to evolve into the person you want to be.”

Several students said that while they found Schmitt to be passionate about her field, they had difficulty personally connecting with her speech.

“I am not a science person so it didn’t resonate with me,” Maya Harjo ’13 said.
All students interviewed, however, were enthused by President Simmons’ presence.
“Ruth looked like a baller in her hat and robe. She just looks awesome up there. I’m a fan thus far,” said Max Potkin ’13. “I got more excited for Brown after hearing her speech.”