Noubar Afeyan PhD ’87 gives new MIT graduates a special assignment

Biotechnology leader Noubar Afeyan PhD ’87 delivered the address at the 2024 OneMIT Commencement ceremony. “Welcome long odds,” he told the graduates. “Embrace uncertainty, and lead with imagination.”

The inventor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist encourages the Class of 2024 to “accept impossible missions” and “lead with imagination” in uncertain times.

Peter Dizikes | MIT News

May 30, 2024

Biotechnology leader Noubar Afeyan PhD ’87 urged the MIT Class of 2024 to “accept impossible missions” for the betterment of the world, in a rousing keynote speech at the OneMIT Commencement ceremony this afternoon.

Afeyan is chair and co-founder of the biotechnology firm Moderna, whose groundbreaking Covid-19 vaccine has been distributed to billions of people in over 70 countries. In his remarks, Afeyan briefly discussed Moderna’s rapid development of the vaccine but focused the majority of his thoughts on this year’s graduating class — while using the “Mission: Impossible” television show and movies, a childhood favorite of his, as a motif.

“What I do want to talk about is what it takes to accept your own impossible missions and why you, as graduates of MIT, are uniquely prepared to do so,” Afeyan said. “Uniquely prepared — and also obligated. At a time when the world is beset by crises, your mission is nothing less than to salvage what seems lost, reverse what seems inevitable, and save the planet. And just like the agents in the movies, you need to accept the mission — even if it seems impossible.”

Afeyan spoke before an audience of thousands on MIT’s Killian Court, where graduates gathered in attendance along with family, friends, and MIT community members, during an afternoon of brightening weather that followed morning rain.

“Welcome long odds,” Afeyan told the graduates. “Embrace uncertainty, and lead with imagination.”

Afeyan’s speech was followed by an address from MIT President Sally Kornbluth, who described the Institute’s graduating class as a “natural wonder,” in a portion of her remarks directed to family and friends.

“You know how delightful and inspiring and thoughtful they are,” Kornbluth said of this year’s graduates. “It has been our privilege to teach them, and to learn together with them. And we share with you the highest hopes for what they will do next.”

The OneMIT Commencement ceremony is an Institute-wide event serving as a focal point for three days of graduation activities, from May 29 through May 31.

MIT’s Class of 2024 encompasses 3,666 students, earning a total of 1,386 undergraduate and 2,715 graduate degrees. (Some students are receiving more than one degree at a time.) Undergraduate and graduate students also have separate ceremonies, organized by academic units, in which their names are read as they walk across a stage.

Afeyan is a founder and the CEO of Flagship Pioneering, a venture firm started in 2000 that has developed more than 100 companies in the biotechnology industry, which combined have more than 60 drugs in clinical development.

A member of the MIT Corporation who earned his PhD from the Institute in biochemical engineering, Afeyan also served as a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management for 16 years. He is currently on the advisory board of the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning and has been a featured speaker at events such as MIT Solve. Afeyan is the co-founder of the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, among other philanthropic efforts.

“You already have a head start, quite a significant one,” Afeyan told MIT’s graduates. “You graduate today from MIT, and that says volumes about your knowledge, talent, vision, passion, and perseverance — all essential attributes of the elite 21st-century agent.” He then drew laughs by quipping, “Oh, and I forgot to mention our relaxed, uncompetitive nature, outstanding social skills, and the overall coolness that characterizes us MIT grads.”

Afeyan also heralded the Institute itself, citing it as a place crucial to the development of the “telephone, digital circuits, radar, email, internet, the Human Genome Project, controlled drug delivery, magnetic confinement fusion energy, artificial intelligence and all it is enabling — these and many more breakthroughs emerged from the work of extraordinary change agents tied to MIT.”

Long before Afeyan himself came to MIT, he grew up in an immigrant Armenian family in Beirut. After civil war came to Lebanon in 1975, he spent long hours in the family apartment watching “Mission: Impossible” re-runs on television.

As Afeyan noted, the special agents in the show always received a message beginning, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it … ” He added: “No matter how long the odds, or how great the risk, the agents always took the assignment. In the 50 years since, I have been consistently drawn to impossible missions, and today I hope to convince each and every one of you that you should be too.”

To accomplish difficult tasks, Afeyan said, people often do three things: imagine, innovate, and immigrate, with the latter defined broadly, not just as a physical relocation but an intellectual exploration.

“Imagination, to my mind, is the foundational building block of breakthrough science,” Afeyan said. “At its best, scientific research is a profoundly creative endeavor.”

Breakthroughs also deploy innovation, which Afeyan defined as “imagination in action.” To make innovative leaps, he added, requires a kind of “paranoid optimism. This means toggling back and forth between extreme optimism and deep-seated doubt,” in a way that “often starts with an act of faith.”

Beyond that, Afeyan said, “you will also need the courage of your convictions. Make no mistake, you leave MIT as special agents in demand. As you consider your many options, I urge you to think hard about what legacy you want to leave, and to do this periodically throughout your life. … You are far more than a technologist. You are a moral actor. The choice to maximize solely for profits and power will in the end leave you hollow. To forget this is to fail the world — and ultimately to fail yourself.”

Finally, Afeyan noted, to make great innovative leaps, it is often necessary to “immigrate,” something that can take many forms. Afeyan himself, as an Armenian from Lebanon who came to the U.S., has experienced it as geographic and social relocation, and also as the act of changing things while remaining in place.

“Here’s the really interesting thing I’ve learned over the years,” Afeyan said. “You don’t need to be from elsewhere to immigrate. If the immigrant experience can be described as leaving familiar circumstances and being dropped into unknown territory, I would argue that every one of you also arrived at MIT as an immigrant, no matter where you grew up. And as MIT immigrants, you are all at an advantage when it comes to impossible missions. You’ve left your comfort zone, you’ve entered unchartered territory, you’ve foregone the safety of the familiar.”

Synthesizing these points, Afeyan suggested, “If you imagine, innovate, and immigrate, you are destined to a life of uncertainty. Being surrounded by uncertainty can be unnerving, but it’s where you need to be. This is where the treasure lies. It’s ground zero for breakthroughs. Don’t conflate uncertainty and risk — or think of it as extreme risk. Uncertainty isn’t high risk; it’s unknown risk. It is, in essence, opportunity.”

Afeyan also noted that many people are “deeply troubled by the conflicts and tragedies we are witnessing” in the world today.

“I wish I had answers for all of us, but of course, I don’t,” Afeyan said. “But I do know this: Having conviction should not be confused with having all the answers. Over my many years engaged in entrepreneurship and humanitarian philanthropy, I have learned that there is enormous benefit in questioning what you think you know, listening to people who think differently, and seeking common ground,” a remark that drew an ovation from the audience.

In conclusion, Afeyan urged the Class of 2024 to face up to the world’s many challenges while getting used to a life defined by tackling tough tasks.

“Graduates, set forth on your impossible missions,” Afeyan said. “Accept them. Embrace them. The world needs you, and it’s your turn to star in the action-adventure called your life.”

Next, Kornbluth, issuing the president’s traditional “charge to the graduates,” lauded the Class of 2024 for being “a community that runs on an irrepressible combination of curiosity and creativity and drive. A community in which everyone you meet has something important to teach you. A community in which people expect excellence of themselves — and take great care of one another.”

As Kornbluth noted, most of the seniors in the undergraduate Class of 2024 had to study through, and work around, the Covid-19 pandemic. MIT, Kornbluth said, is a place where people “fought the virus with the tools of measurement and questioning and analysis and self-discipline — and was therefore able to pursue its mission almost undeterred.”

The campus community, she added, “understands, in a deep way, that the vaccines were not some ‘overnight miracle’ — but rather the final flowering of decades of work by thousands of people, pushing the boundaries of fundamental science.”

And while the Class of 2024 has acquired a great deal of knowledge in the classroom and lab, Kornbluth thanked its members for what they have given to MIT, as well.

“The Institute you are graduating from is — thanks in part to you — always reflecting and always changing,” Kornbluth said. “And I take that as your charge to us.”

The OneMIT Commencement event started with a parade for alumni from the class of 1974, back on campus for their 50th anniversary reunion. The MIT Police Honor Guard entered next as part of the ceremonial procession, followed by administration and faculty. The MIT Wind Ensemble, conducted by Fred Harris, Jr., provided the accompanying music.

Mark Gorenberg ’76, chair of the MIT Corporation, formally opened the ceremony, and Thea Keith-Lucas, chaplain to the Institute, gave an invocation. The Chorallaries of MIT sang the national anthem.

Afeyan’s remarks followed, but were delayed for several minutes by protesters holding signs. After his speech, Lieutenant Mikala Nicole Molina, president of the Graduate Student Council, delivered remarks as well.

“Let us step forward from today with a commitment not only to further our own goals, but also to use our skills and knowledge to contribute positively to our communities and the world,” Molina said. “Our actions reflect the excellence and integrity that MIT has instilled in us.”

Penny Brant, president of the undergraduate Class of 2024, then offered a salute to her classmates, saying “I know I would not be graduating here today if not for all of you who have helped me along the way. You all have had such a profound and positive impact on me, our community, and the world.”

Kornbluth’s speech, which followed, was momentarily interrupted by shouting from an audience member, before students and other audience members gave Kornbluth a sustained ovation and ceremonies resumed as planned.

R. Robert Wickham ’93, SM ’95, president of the MIT Alumni Association and chief marshal of the Commencement ceremony, also offered a traditional greeting for graduates saying he was “welcoming you into our alumni family, your infinite connection to MIT.” There are now almost 147,000 MIT alumni worldwide.

The Chorallaries sang the school song, “In praise of MIT,” as well as another Institute anthem, “Take Me Back to Tech,” moments after Gorenberg formally closed the ceremony.

Preceding Afeyan, recent MIT Commencement speakers have been engineer and YouTuber Mark Rober, in 2023; Director-General of the World Trade Organization Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, in 2022; lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson, in 2021; and retired U.S. Navy four-star admiral William McRaven, in 2020.

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