Skip to content

National Science Foundation director tells Northeastern graduate students to stay curious and prepare for a lifetime of learning

Headshot of National Science Foundation Director Sethuraman Panchanathan.
Sethuraman Panchanathan, head of the National Science Foundation, told Northeastern graduate students their work will benefit humanity. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

This is part of our coverage of Northeastern University’s 2024 commencement.

National Science Foundation Director Sethuraman Panchanathan challenged graduate students at Northeastern University’s 122nd commencement Sunday morning to commit to mentoring at least 25 people as they left Fenway Park.

“You are all the fortunate ones. Your parents believed in you. Your teachers believed in you. Here you are, successful, ready to take on the world,” said Panchanathan, a computer scientist and engineer who became head of the NSF in June 2020. 

For each graduate there are at least three or four people who didn’t have the same opportunities, he said.

“Each of you should vow that you are going to mentor, inspire, motivate and make opportunities for at least 25 people in your lifetime,” Panchanathan said. “If you’re done, go to 50. Look what a wonderful place you would create in this nation and across the globe.”

Panchanathan also called himself a “fellow Husky” after receiving an honorary doctor of science degree for what Elizabeth Mynatt, dean of the Khoury College of Computer Sciences, called his leadership in science, technology and AI as well as his championship of diversity and inclusion in STEM.

Noted for his own mentorship of aspiring scientists and engineers, Panchanathan also told graduates he was going to quiz them at the end of his speech to see if they remembered what he called the “10 C’s of success.”

The list started with commencement and ended with congratulations. 

“Commencement is not a conclusion,” Panchanathan said. “This is the start of your journey to learn more. This commencement is about learning for life.”

For the second C, for COVID-19, he congratulated students for their resilience. “You all lived through this global pandemic where you had to literally switch your mode of learning,” he said.

“The only constant is change. You are all masters of change,” said Panchanathan, who also gave the keynote address Oct. 16 at the opening of Northeastern’s new EXP research complex.

He advised graduates to use change to seize opportunities to contribute to society. 

“How do I do this?” he asked metaphorically. “That is the spirit of curiosity.”

“We are explorers … from the moment we came into this world. Always be curious,” he said.

Panchanathan said he remembers his sense of wonder and inquiry being piqued when he was an 8-year-old child in India viewing “this amazing moon rock” that the U.S. was exhibiting around the world.

“It lit a spark,” he said. “We all have sparks. That’s what curiosity is about.”

Panchanathan gave as an example the groundbreaking work Northeastern researchers are doing to advance understanding of AI and large language models with a recently awarded $9 million NSF grant.

With the help of the NSF grant, Northeastern professor David Bau will lead a project called the National Deep Inference Fabric that will unlock the inner workings of large language models in the field of AI to better understand how neural network-based tools reason and make decisions.

“That’s about advancing the future of AI. That was borne out of curiosity,” Panchanathan said.

His fifth “C” was courage. 

“Anything you do in your life requires a tremendous amount of courage and willingness to transcend obstacles,” Panchanathan said.

If the graduates thought obstacles had ended with their overcoming a difficult assignment in class, he told them otherwise. “Believe me this is just the beginning.”

Panchanathan gave as an example of courage a former student, David Hayden, who helped design an innovative solution to his problem of not being able to see the board in the classroom due to visual difficulties. 

The development led Hayden to win the Microsoft Imagine Cup world championship in Poland when he was still an undergraduate. 

“All through your life you can unleash amazing possibilities. You need courage. It is never about you. It’s about the team,” Panchanathan said.

That led him to his next “C,” collaboration, which he said is “something you need to pay attention to.”

“All great things happen with true collaboration,” Panchanathan said.

He also cited NSF’s contribution of $10 million to the Engineering PLUS Alliance in which Northeastern is participating. The alliance is aimed at increasing the number of women, Black, Indigenous and people of color in engineering.

The goal of the project, Panchanathan said, “is to unleash potential everywhere.”

The “C” of convergence refers to the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary cooperation needed to solve the world’s most pressing problems. 

You want to leave this place better than you found it,” Panchanathan said. “Always, always, always.”

Communication is about speaking with purpose and listening to others, he said.

“Believe me folks, I talk to everybody,” Panchanathan said. “I’ve had amazing stories from conversations with Uber drivers. Every life story is unique, exciting and meaningful. You have to make the time to engage with people.”

The difference between people who have aspirations and people who achieve their aspirations is commitment, Panchanathan said.

The resolve that earned the graduates their advanced degrees will help them achieve across their lifetimes, he said.

The 10th “C” was congratulations to the 5,563 graduate degree recipients, most of whom were in attendance on Sunday morning.

But before that, Panchanathan came up with an acronym for Husky: Humanity, Understanding, Service, Knowledge and You.

“What is it about the Husky that makes you so special?” Panchanathan asked, answering by saying Huskies have qualities including persistence and a lifelong learning mindset.