Graduate student speaker Alexandra Keane’s message to the Class of 2019

Graduate student speaker Alexandra Keane, MD, told her fellow graduates to tap into their creativity at the 158th Commencement of Washington University in St. Louis. Keane earned a doctor of medicine from the School of Medicine. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

Thank you, Grand Marshal Drobak.

The peak of every medical student’s education is Match Day — the day we discover where we’ll spend our years training as residents — and as it drew to a close, I found myself reflecting on the university that shaped me into the physician I soon will be. Walking through the Medical Campus, I passed by the patient rooms, where we saw beyond disease, to the resilience of the human spirit; the lecture halls, where confusion transformed into clarity; and the science labs, where our knowledge was stretched beyond the single cell to the intricate connectivity of the organ systems that make us human.

It was here at WashU that we graduate and professional students learned that education comes in small acts and big strokes. It gave us the power to tie together patterns, interactions and systems in search for our relationship in the world. But this is just the beginning. It’s where we go from here that will make all the difference. If not us, who? If not now, when? Apple’s founder, the late Steve Jobs, left us with this advice:

“Your time is limited so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of others’ thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

But it can be hard to know what our passion and purpose is. It is easy to be consumed entirely by our work, technology, social media and hobbies, but when will we nurture our creative and innovative thinking?

Our generation is faced with foreboding challenges that cannot be advanced without our creative problem-solving. Worldwide industry leaders have deemed creativity the most important quality for success. And while studies have shown that IQs are rising, our creativity scores have been decreasing over the last three decades.

At Washington University, we are surrounded by world-renowned innovators who have harnessed their creativity to improve our world. In medicine and engineering, researchers are developing eyeglasses that give surgeons the incredible ability to detect the smallest remnants of cancer during surgery, in real time. In the Brown School, they are finding innovative solutions to combat the devastating opioid epidemic. The Law School is addressing privacy and ownership ethics surrounding genomics. The Olin MBA program has instituted a global immersion component to promote globally oriented thinking.

One person, in particular, has inspired my career path, Dr. Susan Mackinnon.

Years ago, she was frustrated. Despite the efforts of the most talented surgeons, patients who lost use of their hands, arms, feet and legs due to nerve injuries, were gaining little to no improvement after surgery. They commonly lost function abruptly after war injuries, devastating accidents or cancer removal. In a brief moment, their lives went from totally independent and functional, to ones of dependence and immobility. Motivated by these outcomes, Dr. Mackinnon had a rage to master the domain of nerve surgery, endlessly asking, ‘Is there a better way?’

The problem was always churning — consciously and subconsciously, she lived it, she dreamed it, developing a surgical technique that was radically different. In simple terms, some muscles in our arms and legs are controlled by two nerves, when they actually only need one. So, when other nearby muscles that are controlled by only one nerve aren’t working because that nerve is injured, why not borrow from a muscle that has two?

It is as if human body was made for the creativity of Dr. Mackinnon to discover these unrealized spare parts. Once facing paralysis or amputation, a patients’ outlook now includes much improved and sometimes near normal, movement and feeling. However, as with any paradigm shift, her technique was met with doubt, hostility and even threatened legal action from some of her peers. In her wisdom, Dr. Mackinnon realizes that her ingenuity was actually born out of this adversity.

Standing upon the shoulders of giants, like Dr. Mackinnon here at WashU, how will we advance this legacy of progress? We must tap into our own creativity.

In the words of Sir Ken Robinson, “We are people who are driven by feelings and inspiration and a sense of possibility. Creativity is the essence of humanity, it is not an incidental part of being human, but it’s distinctly human.”

In life, we will encounter problems that perplex and frustrate us, unveiling our passion, our purpose. But not only will it take the proverbial 10,000 hours to fully understand the problem, we must persist even in the face of adversity. And along the journey to discovery, we must allow our minds to wander and wonder. Because in this downtime, the problem can run rampant across our subconscious minds, culminating in our “aha” moment.

Recall some of the great insights — Archimedes discovered density calculations while relaxing in a bath and Newton discovered gravity sitting under an apple tree. A mind that is persistently activated externally is a restricted mind. Neuroscientists found that opposing brain networks, that don’t normally work together, are both active during mind wandering. In essence, when you allow your mind to escape the hustle of the outside world, your brain isn’t relaxing. Quite the opposite: it is working on overdrive.

But in a world where we are expected to be constantly available, where do we find downtime? Many of us are chronic multitaskers: work on one computer screen, email on another, the New York Times crossword on another, all while scrolling through Instagram or Twitter and listening to music. But is this at the expense of meaningful, inventive production? In the words of Shakespeare, “We are consumed by that which we are nourished.” It’s up to us. So, entering a continually moving world, I hope we unplug, indulge in the stillness and feed our imaginative spirit, for this may generate our own Newtonian flash of discovery.

Class of 2019, we are now called to generate solutions to the most pressing concerns troubling the world today. So, live with a sense of urgency, because just as there are commencements, there are cessations. Be tenacious, knowing that playing small does the world no service. And finally, have the courage to follow your intuition — your questioning may be the spark that sets in motion the tides of progress.

Congratulations, Class of 2019. Thank you.

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