Professor Alice P Gast

19 October 2015, Royal Albert Hall

Members of Court and Council, colleagues, graduates, families, distinguished honourees, ladies and gentlemen. It is my honour, as President of Imperial College London, to welcome you to Commemoration Day 2015.

We gather today to celebrate and congratulate our graduates.

Graduates, we salute you. You have accomplished a lot. You have earned a degree from Imperial and that is a great achievement. You have grown intellectually, you have expanded your horizons, you have made new friends, and you have become independent thinkers. The world is full of great challenge and opportunity.  I think that you are ready to rise to meet both the challenges and the opportunities.

You have worked hard and you have learned well. Yet, what you have learned is only the beginning. As hard as your course of study was, as intense as your exams were, they have prepared you to continue to learn and to adapt to the changing world around you.  Learning beyond university may not be as easy as you will not have your tutors, your lectures or your exams to guide you.  You will be finding the path forward.

You face different challenges than your parents, professors and I faced when we graduated.

The information available to you will expand. The pace of change will accelerate. Making intelligent decisions will require clear-thinking and judgement.   

I hope that you won’t mind my describing these challenges in technical terms: You will have to increase your bandwidth and be able to discern the signal from the noise.

You are well-educated in your fields.  You have developed a great capacity to learn.  You will need to hone this talent and broaden your horizons and take on new information and ideas from a wide variety of sources. This may mean increasing your bandwidth to master new things along the way.

Bandwidth is a term that characterises the amount of information a channel can carry.  I use the expression often to characterise my capacity to give appropriate thought to a problem or an issue.

As you open up your channels and bit rate to the massive amounts of information all around us, be discerning and discriminating with your attention. You will need to extract the signal from the noise. As many of you know, the signal-to-noise ratio is a measure of the ratio of the meaningful information to the unwanted and irrelevant data. 

Imperial academics are experts at this.  They pull the Higgs-Boson signal from terabytes of data; they discern the signal coming from a single neuron in a fly; they find the pattern in the chaos of the hedge fund market; they amplify a genetic mutation from a sea of DNA.

You must distinguish the genuine from the false, the lasting from the ephemeral, and the important from the trivial. You will need to find the signal amid the noise.

The noise in our daily life comes in many forms.

We live in a world of tweets, posts, friends, texts and instant opinion polls. There is pressure to respond immediately and to react quickly. There are new measures of popularity: followers and likes on Twitter, Facebook or WhatsApp. It is easy to confuse what is popular with what is important and relevant. The amount of noise someone makes, or the amount of times something is mentioned, does not necessarily indicate its importance to society. 

As I wrote in my Autumn Letter to the community, we all want our work to have meaning, and to be beneficial to others. Yet there is a risk that focus on short-term fixes and narrow definitions of impact cause us to lose the immense benefits of thoughtful long-term “blue-skies” ideas. The signal can get overwhelmed by the noise of the immediate.

What have you learned at Imperial that will help you increase your bandwidth and cut through the noise?

You have learned to be analytical, critical thinkers. You have learned not take things at face value, but to question, to challenge and to investigate. You have gained the confidence to explore issues where there is no immediate solution. You are more concerned with what is important, than with what is popular.

So as you leave here today, increase your bandwidth and focus on the signal over the noise.  Take the time to dream and to think long term. Believe in your capabilities. Master new things. Use your talents for the benefit of society. 

And please keep in touch with us; we hope that you will come back as alumni and inspire the next generation of students with your successes, and, I think that you will be inspired by the great advancement of your Alma mater, Imperial College London.