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Astrophysicist Tyson to speak at 100th commencement

By Emily Nichol     8/17/12 7:00pm


Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson will speak at Rice's 100th commencement on May 11th, 2013. 

The selection committee consisted of five undergraduate students from a variety of departments, two graduate students, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and Hanszen master Rob Griffin, and adviser David Vassar, the senior assistant to President David Leebron. 

"As in prior years, I've been very pleased with the kind of choices the students have made," Leebron said. "Especially given Rice's historic connection with space flight, that Dr. Tyson is one of the foremost advocates in the country for science makes him a great choice."

Tyson, who is the Director of Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, founded the museum's department of astrophysics and has served on NASA's advisory council; additionally, People magazine voted Tyson "Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive" in 2000. 

Besides Tyson's scientific contributions, he also has a reputation for humor. 

"Tyson has done a lot, " committee member Mariel Rodriguez said. "He's given some really inspiring talks, but he's also been on 'The Colbert Report. Honestly, I think that the diversity of what he's done is the important point. He's an astrophysicist and a mathematician, but also he does comedy and has a PBS show. I think the message is that it's important to keep your options open and to stray from the path you have in mind if the option presents itself."

"They call him a science communicator," committee member Alex Fernandez said. "He talks about these big complicated topics in a way that we can all understand and relate to our everyday lives."

The search for this year's commencement speaker began in February, later than in previous years due to some staff changes, but Griffin said the students on the committee handled themselves with composure and were not fazed by the deadline. 

"The personalities of the students really made it work," Griffin said. 

The committee met periodically throughout the semester after each nominating two people and considering nominees from previous years. Eventually, the group narrowed down the list to five nominees to submit to the president's office, who was responsible for approaching the nominees. 

"I don't know if other universities have their selection committee set up the way we do, in terms of being so transparently democratic and letting students from all different areas, as well as having undergrads and grad students, participate," Committee member Raj Salhotra said. "I think it's a really great system."

This year, the Selection Committee was looking for a speaker with a great stage presence. Committee member Adara Robbins said it was also important that the speaker reflect Rice's diverse population. 

"What the speaker says is important," Robbins said, "but they also really need to reflect the student body and connect to them."

Fernandez, a Lovett College senior, further stressed the importance of having a speaker that students can relate to. 

"We were looking for someone quirky and off the beaten track, like Rice students," Fernandez said. 

Also notable is the historical significance of the choice, which also celebrates the 50th anniversary of Rice and NASA's pivotal collaboration. 

"I am honored to deliver Rice University's commencement address during a year that commemorates President Kennedy's famous 'We Choose to Go to the Moon' speech, given at Rice Stadium a half-century ago," Tyson said. "That speech not only established space exploration as a national goal: It forged space exploration as a national identity and secured Rice University and Houston's Manned Space Flight facility (later, Johnson Space Center) as the birthplace of that era."

Tyson earned a B.A. in physics from Harvard University, an M.A. in astronomy from the University of Texas and M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees in astrophysics from Columbia University. 

The Selection Committee recognized the significance of their choice and how important the decision is for this year's graduates. 

"I hope people recognize how amazing he is as an individual and how lucky we are to have him," Robbins, a Sid Richardson senior, said. 

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