On Thursday, March 27, the President’s Office announced the speaker for this year’s Commencement ceremony. Vassar alumna and physicist Dr. Sau Lan Wu ’63 will speak at the 150th Commencement ceremony on May 25, 2014. Wu serves as the Enrico Fermi Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her work with the ATLAS team of physicists lead to the announcement of the Higgs boson, also known as the “God particle,” a new subatomic particle, back in July of 2012.
Professor of Mathematics John Feroe explained, “She’s the leader of an international research team engaged in understanding matter and energy at its most fundamental form, work that has contributed to the establishment of the existence of the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle that accounts for the presence of mass.”
As the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery’s website reads, “Inside the heart of the atom, physicist Sau Lan Wu is mapping the very structure of our universe. In 2012, Wu, the leader of the UW-Madison contingent at the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, played a major role in identifying the wake of the Higgs boson-an elusive subatomic particle believed to give all matter its mass.”
The site continues, “It was yet another landmark in a career that includes being the leader in the discovery of the gluon—which ‘glues’ together pieces of an atom’s nucleus—and contributing to finding a particle called J/psi that confirmed the existence of another subatomic piece, the charm quark.”
Wu joins a growing list of Vassar alumnae/i who have spoken at commencement ceremonies in the past. Others include actress Meryl Streep ’71, actress Lisa Kudrow ’85, and entrepreneur and businesswoman Geraldine Laybourne ’69. Wu graduated from the College before it became a co-educational institution, and many hope that she will be able to return to the campus offering a fresh perspective and a successful career of experience.
Wu’s perspective will also be different from that of her predecessor, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Gillibrand was the commencement speaker for the class of 2013. During her speech, she spoke about her journey to public service and the role of women in the United States government.
President of the Class of 2014 Connor Martini, who will also make a commencement speech, spoke to his excitement about hearing Wu at Commencement. “From what I’ve heard from people who have heard her speak before, she has an amazing and inspiring life story, which I am excited to hear. She is also a scientist, which has not been represented at Commencement in recent years,” he said.
Feroe echoed this sentiment, emphasizing Wu’s achievements in science as one of the reasons she was chosen. He noted that there has been a continual effort to provide a diverse array of speakers over the years.
“We do think about having a range of backgrounds over the years and I think that a glance through the list of speakers indicates that, but it is often only after the fact that we recognize unique attributes in speakers. In this case, we have had speakers with scientific backgrounds previously, but limited, I think, to the health fields,” he said.
Martini stated that having a Vassar alumna can make commencement speeches more personal. “I think that it was an excellent choice and the commencement speaker should be a Vassar alum. As I said before, it gives the class and the school an extra touch of inspiration and ownership. Her being an alum puts us closer to her than if she were just any old celebrity or academic,” he said.
Martini was also pleased with the result, given the research he had done with the Class of 2014. He explained, “I think it is important to note that the results of the survey I sent out earlier in the year made it overwhelmingly clear that Vassar seniors wanted a woman of color to speak at graduation, so the fact that the President’s office listened to that request is pretty great.”
He continued, “It allows for a bit more ownership of the speech. I think a good speaker tells a compelling story and challenges the students to aspire to similar greatness. Ms. Wu is a leader in her field and is conducting brilliant and controversial research. I’d always wanted a commencement speaker that made Vassar students mindful of the ways they can be similarly compelling, brilliant and controversial.”
In a written statement, President Catharine Bond Hill also expressed excitement about Wu speaking at Commencement. She wrote, “Commencement celebrates the achievements of our graduates and the future promise of those achievements. Given Dr. Wu’s inspiring life story on both sides of her graduation from Vassar, I’m thrilled and grateful that she has agreed to be our speaker.”
Feroe echoed this statement, saying, “With some people, the simple story of their lives is inspiring in and of itself. I find Dr. Wu’s life to be such, and expect that the way in which Vassar has played a pivotal role in her impressive life story will resonate particularly with the class and their families and friends.”