First College of Science Diploma Ceremony highlights personal and scientific achievements

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Science Diploma ceremony 2021

The University of Notre Dame College of Science hosted its first ever college-wide undergraduate diploma ceremony on Saturday, May 22, 2021, honoring the 455 students who were conferred Bachelor of Science degrees.

The ceremony, which in previous years has been held within individual departments and during an awards luncheon for those earning specific Dean’s Awards, was held in a sun-drenched Notre Dame Stadium, organized around Covid-19 safety parameters.

At the ceremony, Michael Hildreth, interim dean of the College of Science, shared the importance of relating science to the rest of the world, and to becoming advocates for the field. “At this time, in this place, communicating the results and the process of science may be the good we need,” Hildreth said, noting the optimism of vaccinations that are slowing the spread of the disease.

After a difficult 14 months — and without the previous year’s class even having a proper commencement because of the pandemic, Hildreth said, “even two months ago, we didn’t know the events of this weekend would be possible. Yet, here we are, with the vast majority of you completely vaccinated. A modern miracle of medical science, made possible by decades of previous research by incredibly driven visionaries, has put us where we are today.”

700x400 Commencement

Associate deans, department chairs, and other directors of the different majors presented graduates with their diploma folders on stage. Also during the ceremony, faculty members announced College of Science student award winners in each department or major.

Three students were specifically honored for their overall achievements within the College of Science. Madeline Owen, a Glynn Family Honors scholar and neuroscience major, was introduced as the University of Notre Dame Class of 2021 valedictorian. She will attend Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Alexis Waldschmidt, the 2021 University of Notre Dame salutatorian, was named the 2021 College of Science Dean’s Award winner. A biological sciences and Chinese major, she plans to study in Taiwan as a Fulbright Scholar and pursue a doctoral degree in genetics.

Lihao Yan, a physics major, was named the recipient of the 2021 Dean’s Research Award. He performed research in several different physics disciplines and will attend Yale University to pursue a doctoral degree in condensed matter physics.

Notable awards were also presented to a few faculty members.

Jim Parise, teaching professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, was awarded the Father James L. Shilts, C.S.C./Doris and Gene Leonard Teaching Award. Alex Perkins, associate professor of biological sciences, was awarded the College Research Award. Additionally, Dominic Chaloner, teaching professor, and Laura Flynn, assistant dean, were recognized for receiving Dockweiler Awards from the University for excellence in undergraduate advising.

In addition to touching on the pandemic, Hildreth’s address and words of thanks during the diploma ceremony included an allegory that demonstrated the discourse of the scientific method. He based it on a commencement speech he remembered from his own graduation more than 30 years ago, and combined it with his son’s Notre Dame experience, studying the endangered Karner Blue butterfly.

Two students commencement

In the story, four students see a blue butterfly on campus. One student notes that “there are blue butterflies here.” Another is more specific, noting that there are blue butterflies on the Hesburgh Library quad. They become more specific until one corrects all of them and says that all they know “is that one side of one butterfly is blue.”

“This story stuck with me (because) it illustrates so well that process we all go through, both in learning and in scientific discovery, of understanding what we do and do not know,” he said.

Scientific learning and research is based on the process of elimination to understand what’s missing from your knowledge, he said. “Then you pursue that missing piece of information or understanding until you discover the answer….or you discover things you don’t know, and the cycle of research and discovery continues.”

He urged graduates to take their thirst for knowledge and apply everything they learned at Notre Dame as widely as possible. He shared the notion that many ideas, brilliant or not, can turn into the “right idea” that enables progress.

“As you leave us to do great things, I urge you to bring your inner scientist to bear on problems great and small,” he said. “Through this we will truly achieve progress.”

Commencement Diploma Ceremony elbow bump

After the benediction, HIldreth became the first dean in modern Notre Dame history to lead graduates in singing Notre Dame’s Alma Mater, accompanied by the University of Notre Dame band.

“And our hearts forever praise thee, Notre Dame…and our hearts forever love thee, Notre Dame,” sang the graduates, faculty, staff, and parents inside the stadium after a year marked by hardship, “firsts,” and breakthroughs.