Commencement 2018

Undergraduate ceremony

Watch former Steinway Musical Instruments CEO Dana Messina, E83, address graduates of the School of Engineering as part of its commencement ceremony.

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Graduate ceremony

Watch Akcea Therapeutics President and CEO Paula Soteropoulos, E89, A89, EG90, A20P, deliver remarks at the 2018 School of Engineering Graduate Programs Ceremony

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Watch highlights from the 2018 School of Engineering Graduate Programs Ceremony

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Watch the full events of the 2018 School of Engineering Graduate Programs Ceremony

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Read remarks by Akcea Therapeutics President and CEO Paula Soteropoulos, E89, A89, EG90, A20P.


Dean Qu, distinguished members of the faculty: it is an honor to be here at Tufts University along with special guests, family members, and friends. Most of all, it is an honor to be here with you all, the Tufts University Graduate School of Engineering class of 2018.  You made it!

Such an important day.  You, your families, your professors have all invested so much in each of you to prepare you for this moment, a moment when you embark on the next stage of your journey. 

For the record, I have a very biased view about an engineering education.  I truly believe it provides a strong foundation for any career and in any field of business. 

Engineers dream big, innovate, challenge the status quo, make the world better. 

Engineers are entrepreneurs: We define problems, we ask questions, we find solutions, we learn early to work in teams and we make decisions. 

I argue these are the key characteristics of any highly successful team member, researcher, educator, manager or executive across any sector or field. 

The skills you have gained throughout your engineering education lay the foundation for you to not only continue a career in engineering but expand even beyond to so many fields but especially business and management.  As a CEO, I am confronted every day with a problem, have to decipher multiple inputs and perspectives, help the team or organization find solutions and make decisions. 

During my time at Tufts, I discovered what was then in the 80s a burgeoning industry in its infancy, biotechnology.  I was enamored with the possibility of new innovative approaches to engineer new medicines for diseases that prior were unaddressable by existing technologies.  I spent many late nights and early morning hours in the basement of the biotechnology labs that were then housed in Pearson, focused on my thesis research, with aspirations to impact, in even a small way, the future of how innovative therapies would be developed and manufactured.  After I graduated from Tufts, I spent my first decade in the engineering field in biotechnology.  My career continued to grow branching out of engineering to leadership roles ultimately running global businesses developing and selling innovative medicines affecting patients around the world.  Three years ago, I had the opportunity as the founding CEO to start up and lead a new company, Akcea Therapeutics, a company focused on delivering innovating therapies for very rare, debilitating diseases.  A company that in 3 years has grown from 1 employee to over 200 in 9 countries.  For me, building a company to bring an innovative medicine to these patients is the realization of that seed of possibility, when I became enamored with biotechnology over 30 years ago here at Tufts.  Its the realization of innovation that will make a difference in the lives of patients who are in desperate need of a treatment.  

My engineering foundation was critical to my journey.  I do what engineers are trained to do.  Dream big, innovate, challenge the status quo and make a better world.  I have the privilege to do this one patient at a time. 

And unknowingly to me, I have also been able to challenge the status quo and help begin to shift the leadership statistics in business. 

In 1990, when I was in your seat, only 22% of the engineering graduate degree recipients (Masters’ and PhDs) at Tufts were awarded to women.  Approximately 45% of you, this graduate class, are women compared to the national figures of only 25%. 45 vs 25%- pretty damned good!  Last year Tufts School of Engineering ranked 4th highest in US News & World Report’s ranking of number of women enrolled in engineering graduate programs.  It is exciting to see Tufts’ role in expanding opportunities for women in all engineering disciplines and I am proud to be an affiliate and a current parent of this institution that has proven exemplary in terms of balance in diversity

Despite this improvement in gender diversity here at Tufts, there is still a long way to go regarding diversity in general, as I believe you will find when you leave this campus on the hill of Medford.

I want you to take a moment and appreciate the diversity here at Tufts, not only gender but your graduate class hails from 27 different countries.  The diversity of background, culture and gender in the C-Suite and on corporate boards has shown unequivocally in research to lead to increased revenue, more innovation and strong company cultures.

In the top 500 companies in the US, women occupy only 21% of board seats and only 5% are CEOs.  Last month, the Boston Business Journal named our company, Akcea Therapeutics, as Massachusetts’ fastest growing public company in 2017.  We topped the list in the number 1 seat of 25 biotech and technology companies, but sadly, I was the only female CEO. We need to do better in technology companies.  There is so much growth potential and we need more women to lead the future of engineering, technology and biotechnology. And we need leaders both men and women who lead through effectively engaging others and bringing the best out in diverse thinking and approaches. 

I point this out to you because it is your generation that needs to have a greater impact on changing this fact. 

Let these statistics empower both genders, to call you to action, to change the balance to get more diversity in leadership, and to drive the future of technology across all industries. 

So how did I defy the statistics?  I didn’t always have the confidence to do what hasn’t been done before.  It was the supporters around me, my husband most of all and 2 memorable male mentors from my 20 years at Genzyme Corporation, that helped me stop doubting myself; they had more confidence in me than I had in myself.   

My road to where I am today was not always perfect, there were a lot of twists and turns, bumps and potholes. But there are a few factors that were most impactful for me. 

I look back now and can try to convey to you what I wish I knew when I was sitting in your seats. I will share 3. But, at the end of the day, I wouldn’t change a thing.  It is the failures, the challenges, the mistakes that make life rich.  They allow us to course correct and know with great conviction what we don’t want and what we do want. 

So if I distill it down to my top 3, they are:

  1. Don’t fear failure
  2. Embrace imperfection, and
  3. Appreciate the value of connection.

So starting with:  Don’t fear failure. Make mistakes.

Most of us hold back because we don’t want to fail, to disappoint others.  We all need to jump, leap, climb, scratch our knees and get muddy. It’s the only way to see how far and how high we can go, to push beyond our self-imposed limits, to discover what drives us, what we are passionate about and where we can go. 

Innovation and transformation cannot happen when you are worried you will fail, or worried you will disappoint. 

When I was an engineer, a couple years out of school, I was part of the design/build team of Genzyme’s most significant large scale manufacturing plant for the company’ flagship rare disease drug.  During the initial startup of the facility of this expansive facility that sits on the banks of the Charles River, one of the largest tanks in the support services systems imploded.  Our Vice President of engineering came to me on the Friday when this occurred and told me he wanted me to take over leading the start up of this plant starting the following Monday.  My initial reaction was: Impossible, I couldn’t lead this, I didn’t know what to do, how do I start up a plant that including heating, cooling, water systems, bioprocessing reactors, purification systems.  What if another piece of equipment imploded under my watch?  He gave me, however, the most important lesson.  I needed to learn quickly to balance risks, gather all the information I could to make decisions, trust myself but trust the people around me. Importantly, he didn’t tell me how to execute but he told me the why.  His words stuck with me: he said:  every day that plant is not up and running, its thousands of patients without a lifesaving drug, these patients are depending on us.  They are depending on you.  It was the “why” that compelled me to take on risks, to not fear failure. 

Losing the fear of failure opened me up to new opportunities.  I took lateral moves, to not be prescriptive in a path, ladder or direction.  My transition from engineering to the business side was driven by a drive to connect closer to patients and the medicines that could help them. When there was a business problem, I jumped in. Its raising your hand when something needs to be done, a problem to be solved.  Don’t forget, you are engineers.  You are wired to see a problem and to solve it.  Don’t fear what you haven’t done before.  Accept that you may fail sometimes and that is ok.  Failing is the only way to learn and grow.  And someday, if you are in a position to manage other people, do the same for them.  Take risks on good people. Don’t worry that they haven’t done every aspect of a job before.  Take risks on your people and encourage them to take risks themselves. Your mutual growth will be exponential.  Give them guidance, the tools they need to succeed, and then get out of their way.       

Mistakes will happen. Mistakes and failure are the universe’s way of nudging you in the right direction. Get out of your comfort zone, be open to the unexpected and relish what unfolds.

My #2 what I have learned: Embrace imperfection

In my early career, I felt I had to do it all myself.  I had to prove my smarts, my value and worth.  I could handle the work load, balancing a family and growing my career.  At some point, that brings you to a breaking point.  I had to learn to let go of perfection. To be ok with other people doing things in a way that was different from the way I would do things, whether that be at work or home.  It was ok that my husband bought the wrong brand of milk or dressed my then young daughter in clashing colors or it was ok that an employee took longer to get to an answer I could have just given them directly.  Otherwise, we micromanage, standstill where we are and never move on to take on other things.   

And by the way, not only am I suggesting that your partner, co-worker, employee be imperfect, but you too.  You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room.  It is ok to say “I don’t know.”  This is an important point.  If you want to grow, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Don’t fear showing your vulnerability, asking for help or saying you don’t know

Give up your need to control everything.  This may be extremely hard for engineers who have been classically trained to calculate and control their environment.  When you give up your need to control everything, you will make more room for the new, to innovate.  Otherwise you will miss the unexpected opportunities, the coincidences and serendipity.    So embrace imperfection in yourself and in others.

And my last point: Appreciate the value of connection.

And I mean connection to everything –its appreciating how much greater value can be created by connecting the perspectives of diverse viewpoints as well as the power to innovate, change and impact by making new connections in a new way.

You have spent much of your education learning how science and technology can change the world but technology alone isn’t the solution. It’s the power of the people you are connected with that will make such changes.Every person you encounter in some way, whether profound or small will impact you. With the greater use of social media, there is a risk that we forget the human aspect of interaction, connection, listening and many times, kindness.The greatest gift you can give to another, at work, home, on your personal time, in appreciation of their value and worth, is being present and listening intently. Put the phone down and listen; pick up the phone and talk rather than shooting off a text or email. The late CEO of Genzyme and an important mentor to me, Henri Termeer, was leading a multi-billion dollar global company but he always made the time to walk around the building, stop, to sit down and connect with anyone in the organization regardless of level to hear how they were doing, what they were working on, what were the issues, how were their families. He appreciated that each individual was part of the whole, he learned so much by listening and had his hand on the pulse of his 10,000 person company.In return, each employee felt heard, valued and connected to his shared vision.

In terms of appreciating novel connections, Tufts college of engineering is a perfect example. Not all engineering schools put the emphasis that Tufts engineering does on the interconnection between varied engineering disciplines as well as the interconnection with areas of the humanities and impact on society, the environment and the global community. Tufts is growing beyond the traditional disciplines of chemical, mechanical and electrical engineering.Tufts’ engineering research has driven the development of tools to improve medical diagnosis and treatment, not only through traditional biochemical and biomedical engineering processes but through the innovation of novel materials and nanoparticles, interfacing biology and digital through cognitive science and computer science and using biology and big data to mine the next generation of medicine. This connection is something to really appreciate and take forward as you think about where you take your engineering education. How can you use the backdrop of diversity of your community, the diversity of science, engineering and the humanities to accelerate innovation on a global scale.

So appreciate and invest in relationships and connection.Go beyond your circle and widen and diversify your community, go beyond the engineering discipline that is written on the diplomas you are about to receive and make those connections that will exponentially expand your ability to innovate and impact the world around you.

On your journey to fulfill your purpose, don’t fear what you haven’t done before, embrace imperfection, and appreciate the value of connection.  Nothing of value is achieved by taking the known and calculated path, nor without others to share in the success. 

Mark Twain said: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

Thank you very much and congratulations Tufts Graduate School of Engineering Class of 2018, relish every twist, turn, bump and detour of the journey that lies before you and appreciate all the people that cross your path along the way.