2016 Commencement Address: Anna Ziegler, MA, MFA
Thank you so much, Dr. Welch. And thank you to the faculty, and to the family of Rosalind Franklin for helping make it possible for me to be here this morning.
It would be a privilege to address any group of esteemed graduates, of course, but to do so at a university that has taken as its name one of my personal heroes is particularly special. What a wise and singular school this is to focus its identity around such a complicated person, someone who does not represent the cult of celebrity at which so many worship these days, but, conversely, sacrificed personal success in the name of professional integrity. In the name of doing science in the way she felt was right.
Rosalind Franklin also happened to change my life. A decade ago, when I was 26, I was offered five hundred dollars by a tiny theater to write a play based on the lives of three female scientists, one of whom was Franklin. Not only was the money bad, but I found the topic – science! – thoroughly daunting. I was an English major, after all, who, growing up, routinely cried during math tests till I was older than I’d like to admit. And yet. Wasn’t the whole idea of being a writer having the opportunity to discover and inhabit worlds that weren’t my own?
And I knew woefully little about the discovery of DNA’s double helix. I knew woefully little about Rosalind Franklin. I didn’t know that Franklin, a well-respected crystallographer, had a notoriously contentious relationship with Maurice Wilkins, her co-worker or boss (depending on who you ask), at King’s College London and that their inability to work together is thought to be partly why James Watson and Francis Crick, a well-oiled team at Cambridge, discovered the structure of the double helix first. I didn’t know that there was a great deal of debate about whether or not Watson and Crick used Franklin’s materials – most critically an x-ray image she created known as Photograph 51 – without her knowledge to reach their conclusion.
And all of that was of course interesting. It was a revelation to me that science, like anything else, was driven by personality and human interaction. I couldn’t believe that one of the most important discoveries ever made had its roots in a failed collaboration. But most of all, I was drawn to Rosalind Franklin. She was such a complicated mess of contradictions: exactly what one looks for in a compelling character. Franklin was smart and she was driven and she defied the prevailing sexist ethos of the 1940s and 50s and became a successful female scientist, almost an oxymoron in those days. But like the rest of us, she wasn’t perfect. Those same qualities that made her successful – her independence, her strong will, her perfectionism, her stubbornness and her cautiousness – were the things that, at least in the episode where the double helix was concerned, held her back, while Watson and Crick, her fearless rivals, who had much less at stake and much less to lose, could guess their way to glory.
This, it seemed to me, could anchor a play. And so in a for-me-uncharacteristic-almost-Watson-and-Crick-like move, I threw caution to the wind and asked the theater if I could change my assignment. I inquired about removing the two other scientists (who were themselves no slouches – Rachel Carson was one) and write the play solely about Rosalind Franklin, who did science in the way many think it should and must be done but is still mostly known for what she didn’t achieve. For being robbed of a world-changing discovery that should have been hers.
Of course there were reasons for her shortcomings. For one, the stakes for her, the consequences if she was wrong, were surely greater than they were for Watson and Crick. Her career, despite all she’d achieved, was more delicately situated because she was a woman. But ultimately, it seems to me, she was a real person, easily frustrated, not unflappable, and very proud. And pride has its pros and cons. Her pride made her who she was. It stopped her from ever feeling victimized, even though she almost certainly was, as a woman scientist and a Jew. It fueled her during the difficult years of proving herself and ensured that she would never be the kind of woman who feels so grateful for being granted an opportunity that she’d overlook how she was treated.
On the other hand, as we all know, pride has downsides. If you are too proud, too much of a perfectionist, you might reject offers of help and collaboration. You might believe that only your way has merit. And most of all, you might act to preserve your pride to the detriment of more important things, fearing that without it you will have lost your only armor against a cruel and indifferent world.
So where does this leave a person? How is one to be? In the play I wrote about her, Rosalind Franklin maintains her integrity and upholds her pride. She will not work with someone she doesn’t respect and she will not announce a discovery she isn’t sure of. In many important senses, she wins—she does not compromise her values. But as admirable as that was, Watson and Crick grabbed the glory. They took a risk. They worked well together. They are household names today. (Though, ironically, I am not aware of any university in the world named after either one of them.) And while I cannot and do not judge Franklin – she was a product of her time, her self-protectiveness and brittleness more than understandable in the face of men who constantly underestimated her—I would still think that one of the great lessons of Franklin’s life is to empower people, especially women, to take the risks she didn’t feel she could take herself. To go out on limbs even though they might snap. The greatest risk, after all, is to live a life that you’ll regret later, realizing you played it safe, that you didn’t risk failure or endure fear to reap possibly bigger rewards.
And these risks apply as much to the personal realm as they do to the professional one. In the argument of my play, this is the more significant battle that Franklin lost. She died tragically young, at age 37, without having sought or found the traditional things that many people imagine a full and successful life to include: a spouse and children. It is perhaps a personal or contemporary projection that Franklin would have regretted not being able to “have it all” but what can I say--it is impossible to truly separate writer and subject.
A decade ago, when I was 26, I assumed having it all was possible. I was still four years away from getting married and seven years away from having a child. I had only to support myself. My biggest emotional hurdles had to do with ending a bad relationship and with wondering whether or not my career would ever really take off, and what I might do to make that happen. As it turns out, I wrote a play no one thought I should write that ended up being my big break; Photograph 51 has now been produced nearly twenty times across the U.S. and abroad. It opened incredible doors to me. And it goes without saying that it was the unexpected doors that have been the most rewarding. Getting to hobnob with great scientists with whom I have no business being in the same room, getting to claim some sort of expertise in a subject I should have no claim to, getting to boast a West End production helmed by a bona fide movie star.
But has the work itself been satisfying? Have I found satisfaction in the anticipated ways? Of course not. There are glimmers, things that motivate you to keep going, but for the most part I always think I could have done better, could have asserted myself more, could have written better plays. A decade on, I don’t think one ever truly feels that one has made it.
But as it turns out, I’m not sure that this is such a bad thing. Maybe it’s good to have something to work towards, to never be truly satisfied. One of the things that I think drew Nicole Kidman to the role of Franklin was her sense that Franklin made a rule of looking forward, that she avoided self-recrimination, that she felt there was always more and better work to be done so best just to get on with it.
The fact is, you are graduating from a school whose very name sends you off into your lives with a particularly healthy way of looking at them. After all, Rosalind Franklin is not known for a single achievement, but for a body of work. She did not come in first in the biggest race of her career. The choice to name this university after Franklin inevitably celebrates not only her remarkable achievements but also the fullness of her life, with all its fascinating complications. It is the acknowledgement that oftentimes the athlete who comes in second is far worthier of our respect than the apparent winner.
We are not just our achievements. We are the complicated, messy, utterly compelling qualities that make each of us good characters, which is to say real people who negotiate the difficult world everyday, who try to find the balance between risk and safety, between complacency and striving, between doubt and certainty, people who know, deep down, that the attempt to find these balances is the closest we will ever come to achieving them.
Which is not to say there aren’t things we know without doubt. There are: feelings and people and time’s constant tugging at our sleeves. We know that, years from now, when you look back on this morning you will remember very little of it, maybe a flash of something – the expression on someone’s face, the way the stage looked, that it was a beautiful June day.
We forget so much. But don’t forget, if you can, what you have achieved in order to be here today. Don’t sell it short, even as other desires and needs take its place.
And most importantly, don’t forget the contributions that other people—friends, colleagues, professors, relatives—have made that have helped get you to this moment. If there is a single lesson my play imparts, it’s that teamwork pays. Your being here today is the result of a successful collaboration. So, going forward, especially in the admirable fields you have chosen, risk really working with each other. Risk the frustration and pain of it. Risk a loss of independence and perfection in the name of listening to someone else.
And enjoy it. Savor the journey. Rosalind Franklin worked hours and weeks and years on her projects, at times with no end in sight. She valued process over product, derived great satisfaction from her work and did it as long as she possibly could.
And really, we could all stand to live a little bit more like that.
Thank you very much and congratulations to all of you.