Graduation address: Professor Ailsa Hall

Wednesday 21 June 2017

Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen.

I am very honoured to be among the first to congratulate all our new graduates today.  Completing a degree is a great achievement and your families, friends and of course, your tutors are tremendously proud of you, as you should be of yourselves. This is the end of a journey, one that may have been a struggle at times, especially when hitting those essay deadlines or fighting those exam nerves. But you have worked (and probably played) hard and made it to the finish line. However, without the support of all the parents and family members here today, and for whom this may have seemed like a similar struggle at times (and I don’t just mean financially!), this would not have been possible. So, please would you join me in thanking your family and your friends.

I am conscious that I am now the only thing now standing between you and the much deserved and awaited celebrations but, with the anticipation that at least some of you may remember more of today than just the taste of champagne, I would like to take a few more minutes of your time to reflect on the challenges you now face. This is an uncertain time, and perhaps you are a St Andrews cohort facing more uncertainty than many that have gone before. All I need to say is Brexit, Scotland’s independence and the tweets of President Trump for you to get my point. You will be confronting the need to discriminate between fact and fiction, between lies and truths. But during your time at this university, whatever your subject, you have been endowed with the skills to think critically and to be sceptical, a skill which I think you will all need to call upon as you take up your various postgraduate challenges. In this era of social media, instant and continuous news, it is necessary now more than ever, to ensure the evidence supports the conclusions, something that we as scientists are all acutely aware. So I urge you to remember your training in healthy scepticism that you have received during your time at this great university and to pass on this critical ability to others.

I am optimistic that as you leave the safe haven that is St Andrews you will be well equipped to deal with the legacy that our generation has passed on. You will need to challenge bigotry and prejudice and respect other points of view. You may need to contest accepted thoughts and ideas, but always maintain the passion and curiosity that brought you here in the first place. And curiosity is what allows us as humans to analyse, reflect and transform this world.  Biologists like myself embrace and champion the concept of biodiversity and the importance of the balance of nature. In my career as a marine biologist here at St Andrews I have been extraordinarily lucky to encounter a wide range of marine mammal species from the tropics to the poles, from the pygmy sperm whale to the Southern elephant seal, never ceasing to be amazed and fascinated by them.

But as we enter the Anthropocene, where man’s imprint on this planet has influenced our world and its ecosystems more than ever before, we should not lose sight of our own, individual footprint. To quote our honorary graduate of 2011, Sir David Attenborough: ‘The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lays upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth.’

So in the same vein let us also embrace homo-diversity, where we can learn from the differences within our own species, its cultures and its traditions. As biodiversity is recognised as a good thing for our planet, homo-diversity should be seen in the same way; a diversity of peoples, ideas and experiences that will help us deal with the trans-boundary, global challenges we face.

So as you leave us, cherish the lifelong friends you have made, the enjoyment you have had and the memories you share. As you are now officially alumni of this University we hope you will keep in touch with our activities here. Make the most of every opportunity, do not wait to be asked twice, and above all continue to have fun, wherever life leads you. Many congratulations to each and every one of you, and enjoy the celebrations, they are indeed very well earned.

Thank you.

Professor Ailsa Hall
School of Biology