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Latonia Harris Encourages Master’s, PhD Graduates to Honor Their Supporters

Harris and Dean Julio M. Ottino spoke during the 2022 PhD Hooding and Master’s Degree Recognition Ceremony

Graduates applaud during the June 12 PhD Hooding and Master’s Degree Recognition Ceremony. | Photo by Joel Wintermantle

Latonia Harris (MS ’97, PhD ’01), recognized her innate curiosity and love of science and learning at an early age. 

Born in Selma, Alabama, Harris’s lifelong quest for knowledge began in the Detroit public school system, continued at the University of Michigan, and then Northwestern Engineering, where she earned her PhD in chemical engineering and became the first member of her family to earn a doctorate.

“I share my story because it’s important that you understand me and the value I place on learning and formal education,” said Harris, senior director of product quality management for BioTherapeutics, Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson. “Earning a PhD from Northwestern was an important milestone in my life. I once stood where you now stand. I know how hard you have worked to get where you are today, and I am impressed by your accomplishments.”

Latonia Harris

Harris spoke June 12 at the 2022 McCormick School of Engineering PhD Hooding and Master’s Degree Recognition Ceremony, held at Welsh-Ryan Arena. During the event, Harris and Northwestern Engineering Dean Julio M. Ottino addressed 263 graduating master’s and 106 PhD students and their families and friends on the value of education and perseverance.

“You showed us that you can press on. When problems were vague and poorly understood, you worked together to find creative solutions,” Ottino said. “When faced with challenges, you overcame them by looking for new avenues and by learning new things. Most importantly, through your struggles you showed that you have grit – which is one of the most important qualities that you can have going forward. I salute you. These are lessons for life.”

The value of support

Harris’s love of science has produced an accomplished career in the pharmaceutical industry, where she has helped deliver transformational cancer therapies to patients who previously had little hope. Her work led to a 2020 election to the National Academy of Engineering, which highlighted her passions for delivering biotherapeutics to oncology patients and STEM education outreach.

Harris shared that she recently read the acknowledgments page of her dissertation. She found the experience humbling because of how many people contributed to her success. Harris’s mother, Elizabeth, accompanied her to every science fair and awards ceremony, and even allowed Latonia to use their home as a lab.

“For my science project, I studied how quickly different foods would mold when placed in various locations. At one point, we had stinky, moldy food all over the house. That’s love,” Harris said. “My mother encouraged me every step of the way and she always believed in me.  Her confidence fortified me for decades.”

At Northwestern, Harris was supported by her two PhD advisers, Professors Terry Papoutsakis and Neil Welker. Calling them her “academic fathers,” Harris said both were generous in sharing their expertise and served as role models.

Harris’s support network also included friends who joined her during late nights in the lab and technicians who taught her how to run tests. But as Harris pointed out, her support system doesn’t make her unique.

Students react during the PhD Hooding and Master's Degree Recognition Ceremony.Joel Wintermantle
A student is hooded during the June 12 ceremony.Joel Wintermantle
A graduate is congratulated during the June 12 event.Joel Wintermantle
Professor Josiah Hester embraces a graduate during the ceremony.Joel Wintermantle
A graduate smiles and applauds during the June 12 event held at Welsh-Ryan Arena.Joel Wintermantle
A graduate and supporter share a hug after the June 12 eventJoel Wintermantle

“Each of you has your own crew of supporters. You can name those friends and family members right now. Those who believe in you and regularly invest in your well-being. Those who surround you with love and encouragement, giving the best of themselves so that you can be your personal best,” Harris said. “Perhaps they are among the names listed on your acknowledgements page. Perhaps they are sitting across the auditorium now with huge smiles on their faces. Perhaps they will be hooding you today. You know who they are.”

Whatever your future holds, I hope you will serve humanity and positively impact the way we live. Latonia Harris

Harris then requested something of the graduates. She asked them to honor those who have supported them by showing gratitude, by telling them in detail what they most appreciate about them and what their support has meant. 

Go above and beyond in acknowledging those who helped get you here. Why not buy your parents a mansion and a personal jet? Just kidding,” Harris quipped. “Parents are easily satisfied with hugs and kind words. In all seriousness, you’ll get something out of sincere expressions of gratitude because gratitude is a gift that serves the giver as well as the recipient.”

Honoring support by finding purpose

That wasn’t the only request Harris made. To have prolonged success, Harris implored graduates to take care of themselves, which should prepare them to deliver on her final ask.

“Please honor your support system by finding your purpose, pursuing your passion, and delivering innovative solutions to our global community,” Harris said. “We need each of you to help address the most challenging issues of our time. As Northwestern engineers, you may aspire to demonstrate leadership and expertise in industry or in academia. Perhaps you are passionate about something outside of traditional engineering. Whatever your future holds, I hope you will serve humanity and positively impact the way we live.  

“Our society needs you and your gifts. Embark upon the next phase of your voyage with passion and purpose. Be true to your heart’s desire and know that you are destined for greatness.”