UC-Berkeley Biochemist Kuriyan Praises Liberal Arts in Commencement Address

(Posted May 19, 2014)

John Kuriyan, professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, delivered the address at this year's Juniata College Commencment, urging the assembled graduates to treasure their liberal arts education.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- John Kuriyan, professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley and a 1981 graduate of Juniata College, outlined how the assembled 2014 graduating class at Juniata's 136th commencement ceremony, Saturday, May 17, shares one value: "the liberal arts tradition binds you all in an intellectual unity that embraces integration over narrow specialization. A Juniata education is a privilege."

The graduating class of 372 students was awarded bachelor of arts (121) or bachelor of science degrees (251) at the ceremony. Juniata also graduated nine students who earned master's degrees in accounting.
In addition, Kuriyan was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. The UC-Berkeley professor was introduced for his honorary degree by Paul Schettler, professor of chemistry and one of Kuriyan's former teachers.

Kuriyan, who came to Juniata as a transfer student from India after receiving a scholarship, regaled the audience by citing ways in which Juniata is different from all other colleges and universities. "In India (and, indeed, in much of the rest of the world) one's course of study is complete proscribed, even down to the last lecture hour," he explained. "Are you an English Lit major who yearns for the excitement in genomics? Forbidden! Are you a physicist with a yen for the romantic poets? No Keats for you! Such narrowness is unthinkable at Juniata."

Kuriyan, who learned hands-on research methods from the college's chemistry faculty, also mentioned how branching out into theatre and English literature changed his life. "The features that make a Juniata education so different from that at a large research university are characteristic of the best liberal arts colleges in America," he said. "The best aspects of the American liberal arts tradition are mirrored in the deepest strengths of the American scientific enterprise, which has been a model for the world since the end of World War II."

The speaker went on to describe three core strengths define Juniata as a top-flight liberal arts college. He said that individuality is a key tool for success. "American science has been built on curiosity-driven research propelled by individual initiative, from which the greatest breakthroughs have emerged," he added.

"Are you an English Lit major who yearns for the excitement in genomics? Forbidden! Are you a physicist with a yen for the romantic poets? No Keats for you! Such narrowness is unthinkable at Juniata."
John Kuriyan, Juniata graduate, Class of 1981

Kuriyan listed internationalism as another key strength, citing a foreign-born colleague who created low-cost instruments and an app that can recognize a disease-carrying mosquito by the unique sound of its "buzz." He also mentioned philanthropy as the third great strength that "has nourished basic scientific inquiry."

"While the federal government remains the central pillar on which the scientific enterprise is built, America is unique in the world for the extensive role that private philanthropy has played in supporting science," he went on. "Private philanthropy gives us the freedom to explore nature without worrying too much about immediate reward."

Kuriyan wrapped up his speech by urging the class to remember the strengths Juniata instilled in them. "You are entering a world that is far more competitive than the one that my class entered, because of the end of the Cold War and the remarkable advances in the economies of so many countries around the world," he said. "Take with you the individualism and creativity that Juniata has surely nourished in you, and give back to society through service and philanthropy, and we will prosper together into the next century."

The 2014 Senior Class Gift collected more than $58,000, a school record (83 percent of the class contributed to the gift), for an outdoor classroom to be located between the Enrollment Center and Brumbaugh Academic Center.

After graduating from Juniata, Kuriyan went on to earn a doctorate in physical chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1986, followed by postdoctoral studies for a year at Harvard University.
Kuriyan began his faculty career at The Rockefeller University, a graduate university in New York City, working primarily in research for 14 years.

The opportunity to teach undergraduates motivated him to join the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where in addition to running a research lab engaged in cancer research, he teaches undergraduates about the connection between biological systems and fundamental ideas in physics and chemistry.

Kuriyan was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2001, one of five Juniata alumni to be named to this prestigious organization.
In addition to his duties at the University of California, Kuriyan also is a researcher at the Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory in the Physical Biosciences Division. He also has served as an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute since 1990. Kuriyan was named a Pew Scholar in Biomedical Sciences from 1989 to 1993.

He received the 2005 Lounsbery Award from the National Academy of Sciences, an award given every year to "a single scientific investigator, under the age of 45, who has made significant contributions to medicine or biology." In 2009, he received the Merck Award from ASBMB for his contributions in structural biology.

Kuriyan is active in the biotech industry in the San Francisco Bay Area, having co-founded one company, Nurix, and serving as a consultant for others. He also serves on the editorial board for the journal "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" and is a senior editor of "e-Life."

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.