World-traveling biologist: 'It's not too late'.

AuthorCaywood, Thomas

Byline: Thomas Caywood

WORCESTER -- At a typical college graduation, the mothers and fathers mostly sit in the audience, clapping and cheering for their twentysomething children up on stage receiving diplomas.

At Quinsigamond Community College's graduation Thursday evening, though, plenty of working parents and older students seeking better career opportunities sat on the floor of the DCU Center wearing black robes.

It was fitting, then, that their commencement speaker, world-traveling molecular biologist Sandra Laney, originally from Spencer, was herself a young mother aiming for better prospects when she graduated from QCC in 1992.

Ms. Laney, global health discovery program officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, told the graduates about the profound impact a simple question had on her life and career.

At the time, she had enough credits to graduate from QCC with a degree in studio arts, but she was hung up on the science requirement needed to finish her degree.

Biology, chemistry and physics seemed impossibly difficult for the artistic-minded young mother, so she signed up instead for a special, self-paced class for those intimidated by science.

To her astonishment, Ms. Laney found she excelled at the discipline and enjoyed seeking after the answers that science allows. She went from being intimidated by science to excited by it.

When she was ready to graduate, a trusted professor asked her what she planned to do next.

Ms. Laney recalled telling the professor that, if she had to do over again, she'd get into genetics.

Then came the question that would redirect the trajectory of her life from a small-town girl in central Massachusetts with small horizons to a scientist who has traveled extensively from remote African villages to the teeming urban centers of India.

When she expressed a wistful regret about not having pursued science in her education, her professor asked, "So, why don't you?''

"He told me that day, 'It's not too late,' '' Ms. Laney recalled.

And it wasn't. She went on to Smith College, where she got a bachelor's degree. While working, she later got a master's degree by attending classes part time. Then a doctorate.

She urged the roughly 700 graduates present at commencement, out of about 1,370 total students who earned associate's degrees and certificates, to listen to themselves and take note if they ever started wishing they had followed a dream, or taken a different path.

"Ask yourself,'' Ms. Laney said, " 'So, why don't you?' ''


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