27 Feb 2018

Celebrating OIST’s Very First Graduates: Graduation Ceremony 2017

The Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) held its inaugural Graduation Ceremony on February 24, 2018, to celebrate the achievements of OIST’s very first graduates. This occasion is testament to the dedication and hard work of OIST’s students, staff members and founders and proves that, in just six years, Japan has established an outstanding new university for world-class international scientific research in Okinawa.

The audience clapped as the graduates processed into the auditorium

The Graduation Ceremony took place on Saturday afternoon. About three hundred people attended the ceremony in the OIST auditorium to celebrate the success of the fourteen graduates, who completed their PhDs in a diverse range of subjects from quantum physics to marine genomics. The audience included family members of the graduates, as well as representatives of Japanese and international academia, industry, and government.

The ceremony opened with the Academic Procession and live musical accompaniment. OIST president Peter Gruss gave a welcome speech and introduced the special guests, including Upper House lawmaker Aiko Shimajiri who delivered a congratulatory speech on behalf of Okinawan Affairs Minister Tesuma Esaki, and Vice Governor Isho Urasaki who spoke on behalf of Okinawan Governor Takeshi Onaga. He thanked the graduates for their contribution to OIST, saying, “We at OIST will forever be grateful for the trust and engagement of these pioneering individuals.”

OIST president Peter Gruss gave a welcome speech and introduced the special guests.

The graduates in their academic dress during the ceremony.  

The commencement speech was given by Dr. Steven Chu, Nobel laureate and former United States Secretary of Energy. He shared three key pieces of advice with the graduates. Firstly, that time on Earth is a precious asset and to use it wisely. Secondly, to resist succumbing to the pressure to publish prematurely and to focus on producing high quality scientific work. Thirdly, he told them to cultivate a generous spirit and to share the credit with others. Dr. Chu urged the graduates to take risks and to challenge themselves, saying, “If you never fail, that will be the biggest failure of your life. You will never know what you could have done.”

Dr. Steven Chu delivered a thoughtful and motivational speech to the graduates.

After a short break and a musical interlude came the conferment of the PhD degrees. The graduates came up one by one and were introduced by their PhD supervisors, who each took an original approach to the introductions.  For instance, Professor Thomas Busch introduced Dr. Lee James O’Riordan with a poem, while Professor Sile Nic Chormaic introduced Dr. Mark Daly with a limerick.

After being introduced, the graduates received their hoods, which featured a local textile, called Yuntanza Minsa in OIST colors of red, white and black. The design of the hood, hand-woven with locally hand-dyed cotton from a craft weavers’ guild in Yomitan, combined local auspicious patterns for luck in money and life, and stylized sine waves representing the sciences.

Dr. Caroline Starzynski, graduate from the G0 Cell Unit, spoke on behalf of the graduate students. She said that the most essential trait to surviving a PhD studentship is persistence, to keep going despite difficulties and hurdles. She summarized the characteristics that an OIST graduate will take with them when they leave OIST, “We are certified problem solvers, critical thinkers, time and even conflict managers, equipped with reasonable skills to convince.” In the last part of her speech, she addressed the people of Japan in Japanese, proving the multitalented nature of the OIST graduates, many of whom raised families and learned Japanese on the side of their studies.

Dr. Caroline Starzynski spoke on behalf of the graduate students.

As part of the ceremony, OIST awarded its first ever honorary degree to Mr. Koji Omi, who first had the vision to create OIST. In a speech for Mr. Omi, Peter Gruss acknowledged that, “without his visionary leadership, OIST may never have been built.” Peter Gruss went on to praise Mr Omi’s courage, selflessness and strength of character, qualities which equipped him to break the traditional mold of the Japanese University system and start a new, unique university from scratch.

The graduates celebrated after the ceremony.

The ceremony closed with a musical finale followed by the Academic Procession, in which the graduates walked out into the February sunshine to rapturous applause.

The graduates received traditional Hawaiian neck garlands called ‘lei’, made from candlenuts, after the ceremony as a gift from Robert Nakasone, an OIST Board of Councilors member from Hawaii.

For some graduates who had already left Japan to take up post-graduation career paths, the Graduation Ceremony provided an opportunity to return to OIST and to catch up with friends and colleagues. When asked what they had enjoyed most about their time at OIST, the graduates shared many happy memories.  Dr. Nino Espinas, graduate from the Plant Epigenetics Unit, said he is grateful for, “the freedom to do my own research at OIST,” and that, “directing your own research is a whole new level of learning worth the risk and pain.” Dr. Daisuke Takahashi, graduate from the Advanced Medical Instrumentation Unit, appreciated the interdisciplinary nature of OIST, saying, “I enjoyed daily conversations with students from other units who were doing very different research and had different ways of thinking.”

Dr. Zafer Hawash speaks with former OIST president Jonathan Dorfan and his wife, Mrs Renee Dorfan, after the ceremony.

The graduates are going on to interesting and exciting new adventures. For instance, Dr. Mark Daly has moved into the field of academic publishing, working as an Associate Editor at Nature Scientific Reports. Other graduates are taking up positions as postdoctoral researchers. After five years at OIST, the graduates have many words of wisdom to share with current OIST PhD students. Dr. Rico Pohle, graduate from the Theory of Quantum Matter Unit, echoed Dr. Chu’s words, saying “Success definitely goes along with failure. One has to understand that failure is good and allows you to learn.”

Family members attended the Graduation Ceremony. These little guests joined in by wearing mini gowns.

This was a very special day in the history of OIST Graduate University. Congratulations to the graduates and may they enjoy every success in their future endeavors.

To see more photos from OIST Graduation 2017, click here.

By Sophie Protheroe


For press inquiries, please contact media@oist.jp.

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