Logo: University of Southern California

What Dreams May Come

Viterbi’s 2012 undergraduate commencement: a valedictorian’s memories and Dr. Dan Barry’s 14-year journey to conquer space
Adam Smith
May 11, 2012 —

EVERYTHING BEFORE THEM: Said Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering: "This graduating class is the best so far; the best educated, the most representative in our history. They represent the changing face of engineering."
Heather Chen, USC Viterbi’s undergraduate valedictorian, remembers walking into Engineering 102 for the very first time, “campus map in one hand, class schedule in the other and a giant question mark over my head.”

That was four years ago. Before a universe of Trojan football games, the Viterbi Ball, Korean barbeque outings, all-nighters in Salvatori Computer Science Center or debugging MATLAB code had drawn the biomedical engineering major deeper into the family of cardinal and gold.

Today, May 11, 2012, Chen and roughly 440 Viterbi undergraduate students are now, diplomas in hand, proud ambassadors of that Trojan family.

Dean Yortsos and Heather Chen, undergraduate valedictorian of the Class of 2012.  PHOTOS BY: Victor Leung.
In his remarks, Yannis C. Yortsos, USC Viterbi dean, urged a sense of “moral imagination” in the graduates’ future work — “the will and ability to carry out the ethical imperative.” As Yortsos noted: “Now, more than ever before, society has a great need for your integrity and compassion, in addition to your knowledge and ability to find solutions.”

In her valedictory remarks, Chen embraced that challenge, saying, “The National Academy of Engineering has asked engineers to tackle a set of 14 Grand Challenges that include the world’s most pressing problems. I look forward to seeing us tackle these challenges with the same passion, dedication and work ethic that we have shown while at USC.”

Indeed, among a host of the day’s honorees, two graduates — Samantha Ma of biomedical engineering and Kristen Sharer of civil engineering — were recently lauded by the National Academy of Engineering for just that very reason. Named 2012 NAE Grand Challenge Scholars for their research, service, entrepreneurship and interdisciplinary work, Ma and Sharer were among 30 students to be so recognized across the United States.

The ceremony was headlined by a remarkable story by Dr. Dan Barry, veteran NASA astronaut.

“I wanted to fly in space for as long as I can remember,” Barry recalled. “When I was in first grade, that was fine, everybody was very encouraging . . . In high school, the tone from the grown-ups changed dramatically. It was no longer, ‘Go for it, kid, you’re going to be on Mars someday.’ It was grow up, kid. Get real. Think about a job. If you like flying so much, go get a job at an airline. You’re not smart enough to be an astronaut; you’re not athletic enough. You’re not good looking enough. The people that were saying those things to me weren’t mean people. They were saying those things because their dreams didn’t become true.”

At 23 years old, Barry submitted his first application to NASA to become an astronaut. It was the first year of eligibility, and he was rejected. But he took solace in certain facts: after all, it was only his first year. NASA didn’t know him yet.

NASA would come to know Barry quite well over the next 14 years. And each year, they rejected him.

CRUCIBLE TO THE STARS: Dr. Dan Barry relates a 14-year story of rejection by NASA, culminating in a career with over 734 hours logged in space.
Finally, at age 37, facing tenure, fearing he might be too old for the stars, he got the call. In an ancient phone booth in the Bahamas, he recalls the voice of NASA’s head of selection, saying: “We were kinda wondering whether you still want to come down here. You’re going to be an astronaut.”

Three space flights, four spacewalks and two trips to the International Space Station later, Barry was living a Louisiana childhood dream.

“However you plan to change the world,” Barry said, “if you hammer at it, if you force it, that dream will come true.”

At the beginning of the day, as part of USC’s 129th main commencement ceremony, Yortsos joined USC president and former Viterbi School dean, C. L. Max Nikias, to confer an honorary degree upon Armas C. “Mike” Markkula (B.S. EE ’64, M.S. EE ’66).

As co-founder of Apple Computer, Markkula wrote Apple’s first business plan. He became their first investor, conceived their core values, wrote early software, became arguably one of Steve Jobs’ greatest mentors, and, as both chairman and CEO, played a critical role for the next 20 years.

Like Barry, Markkula also had a singular dream: become the greatest engineer he could be. This was a theme echoed by Yortsos in his address to the undergraduate students: do what you love; the flatter and more competitive the world gets, “do what inspires and fulfills you.”