Dr. Quave presented a motivational keynote speech at the Etowah High School Academic Letter and Lamp of Knowledge Ceremony in Woodstock, GA. At the request of some members of the audience, the full text of the speech is published below:
Aspirations for Greatness
Cassandra L. Quave, October 2015
Students, you all sit here tonight because you have begun your educational path with great achievement. I congratulate you all for these accomplishments and recognize the hard work and sacrifice that it took for you to get here. I also congratulate your parents, because your journey has also been theirs, and they have stood by you, pushing you to excel and meet your great potential.
You have been blessed with a gift of intellectual ability that not all receive. With this gift comes great responsibility, and an expectation that you use your abilities to make this world a better place for future generations. This lofty goal is not easily met, though. It takes hard work and perseverance, even in the face of intimidating obstacles. A wise man once said:
“Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. You’ve got to find what you love. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” That was a statement by Steve Jobs, the co-founder and past CEO of Apple, during his commencement address to Stanford University in 2005.
Like you, I once sat in a high school auditorium with my parents for an honors ceremony. I am where I am today –not because I was any smarter than my peers – but because I found my passion and pursued it with relentless enthusiasm.
I love what I do. I get to travel the world, encounter different cultures, cuisines and languages. As an ethnobotanist – or plant explorer – I study the relationships between plants and people. I have encountered unfathomable beauty in my travels, interacting with diverse indigenous groups and seeing plant life that few have ever had – or ever will have – the opportunity to experience in person as we lose species across the globe. I have traveled by canoe in the Amazon basin surrounded by the sounds of tropical birds and monkeys on the river shorelines, and I’ve hiked in the isolated silence of the Sharri mountains in the Balkans, whose rugged natural beauty is mesmerizing. I’ve ridden camels in the Arabian desert en route to explore botanical oases and have sought out poisonous plants on the volcanic islands of the Mediterranean that may hold the key ingredients for new cancer drugs.
I’ve had the great honor of meeting leading scientists across the globe to discuss some of the biggest challenges that we face in our near future: climate change, food insecurity, loss of biodiversity, and the growing trends in antibiotic resistance. In Atlanta, I lead a team of scientists and students at Emory University, where we are searching for new drugs to treat infections caused by superbugs like MRSA and CRE, gaining our inspiration from plant medicines used in indigenous cultures across the globe.
One of the most common questions that I get about my work, is how on earth did it all start? How did I begin my career in science? The answer is usually surprising to them. My trajectory began with a simple elementary school science fair project. While I certainly didn’t know it at the time, my fascination with the microbes floating around in drops of pond water was the start.
I was by no means raised in a wealthy family with endless resources. I grew up in a rural town where the main economy was based in cattle ranching and orange groves. My dad ran heavy equipment in land clearing. My mom was a school teacher and she was able to check out a microscope from the school for me to use at home for my project. The project concept was very simple – I hand drew what I saw floating in the water under the microscope and then compared how the microbes looked. The next year, I thought it would be fun to see what grows in the mouths of animals and humans. So, I took saliva samples from our family dog, pig and horse. I also planned to include a saliva sample from one of our cows, and after much time chasing her around the pasture without success, I finally had to concede defeat. This represented an early lesson for me in science – sometimes minor goals need to be reassessed to ensure the successful completion of a project. Fascinatingly, my own sample of human saliva was the richest in bacteria.
When I started middle school, there were a number of deadly outbreaks of a bad bug known as E. coli H7:O157. The newspapers were full of reports of young children dying after eating hamburgers (which happened to be one of my favorite foods at the time) that were contaminated with E. coli. Although I didn’t know any of the kids impacted by this outbreak, the story really touched me, and spurred me to approach my local county hospital lab to ask for training in microbiology. And then, so it began. From 8th grade onward, I learned how to do microbiological experiments in the local clinical lab and applied this knowledge to studies that I conducted on E. coli and antibiotic resistance. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the people who helped me out when I was a curious teenager thirsting for knowledge. Without their help, I wouldn’t be here today.
Starting in middle school and lasting throughout high school, my projects were selected for advancement to compete at the state science fair. I remember clearly that first competition. The boy next to me came from a much better school, much wealthier parents, and he had a much fancier science fair board than mine. He looked at my board, which had hand-drawn graphs and stenciled in text and he actually laughed at me. It was not a soft chuckle, but the kind of loud belly laugh with finger pointing involved. I was so embarrassed, and so sad, feeling completely inadequate. I didn’t walk away with a win that year, but I came back the next year motivated to do better. After some help from my middle school computer teacher, I came prepared with printed graphs and a stronger project, ultimately beating him with a prize. I had the grace not to laugh though.
By the time that I was in high school, my projects had become much more advanced and won me three sequential trips to the international science and engineering fair. As a small town farm girl, these experiences were like a lightning bolt to my spirit. I got to travel to Alabama, Canada, and Arizona for these competitions and met other talented students like me that shared a passion for scientific discovery. In a way, I feel like my career has become an extension of this original experience at the international science fair. The only difference now is that I get paid to travel to cool places across the globe to meet other scientists and present my work at conferences and universities. Some of my recent presentations have taken me not only across the US, but also to countries like England, Switzerland, Mexico, The Netherlands, South Africa, Thailand, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, and even the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, where I got to see orangutans in the wild.
What you don’t know about me yet though, is that I’ve done this all with a disadvantage that many don’t notice at first glance. You see, I only have one leg and require a prosthetic to walk. My physical disabilities have made my journeys ever the more sweet because they were not easily achieved. I was born with birth defects of my skeletal system, and my parents were told that I would be severely mentally retarded at birth. My leg was amputated at the age of three. I’ve had my hip rebuilt, my spine straightened, numerous revisions of my leg, and more surgeries than I can count, averaging 1 or 2 a year from the age of 3 to 20. My whole life has been riddled with road blocks, with what most would consider impossible hurdles to surmount. But while my doctors may have planted steel throughout my body so that I could walk, they also put it in my spirit. I had to learn at an early age that nothing comes easy. That if you want something you must get up and fight for it. Despite the doctors’ original diagnosis of mental impairments, I was blessed with a gift of intelligence instead. But it is what I chose to do with that gift that matters. Despite the hurdles that were presented due to my physical disability, I never gave up. Despite the naysayers that said new antibiotics can’t be found in plants, I never gave up. Our recent discoveries in the lab could change the way that we treat superbug infections in the future. We still have a long way to go with our work, but I am confident that we will make it.
My advice to you, as someone who once stood in your shoes, is this: Find your passion. Find your motivation. Mine is every person that meets heartbreak from superbug infections and knowing that it is within my power to develop better solutions. I have chosen to use my gift to improve human health. What will you use yours for? I urge you all to think carefully about what your passion is and how you can use your talents to aspire towards greatness. Greatness in spirit. Greatness in achievement. Greatness in giving.