CCI Professor Delivers Commencement Address at Alma Mater

On May 4, CCI’s Dr. Rebekah Rogers returned to Athens, Georgia to deliver the commencement address to Genetics graduates at the University of Georgia (UGA), her alma mater. When Rogers arrived at UGA as an undergrad interested in genetics, the university was home to one of just two undergraduate programs in the country where students could major in genetics. Now, there are nearly 40 such programs, but for Rogers, UGA will always be a top-notch trendsetter.

“Even then,” she says, “They had a stellar training program for graduate students and undergrads.” Working on her honors thesis in the labs of Drs. Rich Meagher and Jeff Bennetzen, Rogers endeared herself to faculty who got to know her and were willing to advise and help her when she applied to graduate programs. “Now that I’m grown up and am a professor,” she says, “they have had me back for their seminar series’ and now as commencement speaker.

“It is quite and honor,” she says. “I think the idea of bringing in alumni who are working in Genetics is a really nice idea.”

Her message to the graduates focused on Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich Matthaei cracking the genetic code for how DNA and RNA are translated into proteins. “At the time,” Rogers says, “it was one of the biggest questions in genetics after the double helix was solved. Nirenberg showed up at a conference to present the work and because he wasn’t well known, most of the big researchers skipped his talk. A postdoc saw it and told several of the most respected professors in attendance, like Matt Meselson and Francis Crick, about Nirenberg’s discovery. They were so excited about the work, they had him give the talk a second time so that everyone could hear it.

“Years later, someone asked Crick if he was upset that Nirenberg and Mattaei had solved the problem before he did. He responded with disbelief that anyone could ever be upset that someone had solved such an important problem.”

Rogers appreciates the story because it shows that big discoveries often come from people who are not seeking fame, but quietly working on problems they care about.

“And, I love Crick’s excitement for discovery no matter where solutions come from,” she says. “I think science needs more people like that.”

Rogers’ message resonated with the class of approximately 50 graduates, their families, gathered faculty, administrators and guests. Dr. John Wares, a professor in the department, tweeted:

“@evolscientist just gave one of the nicest graduation speeches I’ve heard in a long time. Thanks Rebekah!”

“It was really nice going back to UGA and seeing all the professors I knew as an undergraduate,” Rogers says. “It was Dr. Rodney Mauricio who invited me to give the talk. He was one of the professors who gave me advice and helped me with my applications to grad school.

“They seemed happy to see me setting up my own lab and gave me a lot of good advice.”

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