Graduation address: Professor Gareth Miles, AVP Dean of Science

Graduation Office
Wednesday 29 November 2023

Wednesday 29 November 2023
Afternoon ceremony

Vice-Chancellor, special guests, colleagues, and, of course, wonderful graduates.

It is an absolute pleasure to be given the opportunity to address you all today. I must start by whole-heartedly congratulating you, our graduating students, but also, your families and supporters, whom I know will have played vital parts in the successes that we celebrate today. And, importantly, today is, first and foremost, a celebration. We celebrate together, as a community, all immensely proud of what you have achieved.

Now, I believe that following congratulating you all, my next job is to provide some sage advice. However, since I still see myself as a kiwi lad from the back of nowhere who oddly ended up here, I was worried what advice I could possibly offer… but then I remembered the wisdom imparted on me by my high school English teacher: “Stick to what you know,” she said.

So, I shall attempt to impart some helpful (if not sage) advice inspired by two things I know: New Zealand, or Aotearoa in the Māori-language, and neuroscience. Yes, the two might not seem linked, other than by the fact that they both start with the letter ‘n’, but I’m sure I can make it work.

So, the neuroscience lecture starts here: neurons, which control everything we think and do, are called excitable cells. If excitable enough, neurons can respond to very small signals with large electrical output. My first advice, loosely connected to neuroscience, is to be like a highly excitable neuron and continue to get excited and celebrate, like we are today, not just for the big things, but also the smaller things. Too often we are focussed on the next like, follow, or subscriber; and I think we often forget to celebrate our successes along the way.

The big ones are obvious, like graduating and World Cup wins (although from a New Zealand perspective probably best to ‘gloss over’ that last one). But I think it is important that we all try to get excited about, and celebrate, our smaller successes too. For example, in my world of neuroscience research, I try to celebrate not just having a scientific paper accepted for publication, but also submitting the paper for consideration. Increasingly, I also celebrate small things like remembering to put matching shoes on. Yes, I have got that wrong before; and, sadly, as a neuroscientist who is painfully aware of something called cognitive decline, I expect to celebrate such things even more with age.

Now, I expect that dressing correctly is not yet ‘celebration worthy’ for our fantastic graduates. Instead, you are more likely to be starting your day looking ahead at the many choices that your wonderful achievements have afforded you. So, back to neuroscience: developing neurons also must make choices about the connections they make – but they do not choose just one connection, they are open to and choose many.

Like developing neurons, I would urge you to consider the multiple choices in front of you as all potentially worthy opportunities. Do not labour too much over the idea that one of these opportunities represents the ‘right choice’, and perhaps be greedy and choose more than one, like neurons do. You have already all proven yourselves to be extremely talented, so trust that there are multiple ‘right choices’ when it comes to the pathways you have created for yourself. And this is where some kiwi culture comes in handy: in particular one of my favourite kiwi sayings “she’ll be right, mate”.

Back to neural connections. Neurons need to make many different connections to work as teams to achieve their ultimate goal, whether it be whispering a syllable or playing a piano concerto. You too should seek out many connections so you can surround yourself with teams who will support you, celebrate with you, and help drive you forward. We used to think neural connections were static, hard-wired; we now know that this is not the case. Neural pathways are flexible and adaptable to allow us to learn new things and respond to different circumstances.

You must also be flexible. Be open to changing your own connections and pathways. I began thinking I was going to be a veterinarian, then maybe a zoologist, then, after one inspiring lecture, I chose neuroscience. I could not have predicted my path here when I started out as that young kiwi kid. So, be flexible, and adaptable, like the neurons that make you who you are.

So, to recap, as all good lecturers should. Celebrate successes, big and small, yours and others. Trust yourselves to make the most of your many opportunities and stay flexible to change.

Finally, I wanted to finish off with a whakataukī. This is piece of wisdom, like a proverb, from the tangata whenua, or first people of New Zealand, the Māori. I think this whakataukī embodies the values of our community.

Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe, me he maunga teitei

This can be roughly translated as: pursue excellence, should you stumble, let it be to a lofty mountain.

Thank you for listening, congratulations again, and I hope you stay connected to our community.

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