Everyone's dream job is not the same.
As I told our graduates at this year's Commencement, I landed my first post-college job as a research assistant for a government commission examining the health effects of asbestos.
The commission was established in the wake of several high-profile stories, including one of a Johns Manville manufacturing plant in Scarborough, Ontario, that at its peak employed 718 workers, almost 10 percent of whom had died from an asbestos-related disease by 1984—and many more since. In the commission's searing assessment, the plant was "a world-class occupational health and safety disaster."
This first job combined everything I was passionate about: the intersection of market economics and the public good; the health and well-being of people; sound public policymaking and evidence-based decision making. And data. Lots and lots of data.
My main assignment was to collect and code this information into a comprehensive database, providing the foundation for a large-scale risk analysis that would, in turn, inform policy recommendations. At the time, I thought it was a work of art.
But then art met life.
I was staffing the commission at a public hearing when I looked up to see the widow of one of the workers at the Johns Manville plant, whose husband had suffered a painful asbestos-related death. She sat down at the table and placed a small box next to her. She told us that the box held her husband's remains.
In that instant, I was reminded that each data point that I had coded was, in fact, someone's husband, father, son. A neighbor, a co-worker, a best friend.
An n of many suddenly became an n of one.
The Class of 2017 graduates at a time when our capacity to harness vast troves of data is unprecedented, exciting, and being put to extraordinary use. As an institution that believes in data-driven research, we herald data-driven achievements. But we know that is not sufficient. We must be able to understand the collective evidence and never lose sight of the complexity of the human story.
Our faculty excels at doing both, whether they are grounding precision medicine in patient-centered care, applying the techniques astrophysicists use to map the universe to address urban housing challenges, capturing the heartbreak of personal loss in the notes of a symphony, or creating population-based interventions that save individual lives.
As the Class of 2017 leaves us, I hope they will embrace this world in its vastness and particularity, using all they have learned here to help guide us to a better understanding of our universe so that we may, in turn, better serve the people in it.
Ronald J. Daniels