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Grace Wang Tells Graduates to Think Big, Value Others, and Themselves

Wang and Dean Christopher Schuh spoke at the 2024 PhD Hooding and Master’s Recognition Ceremony on June 10

Graduates applaud during the June 10 ceremony. | Photos by Joel Wintermantle

In 2001, 3G networks were new to the market, social media was not invented, and there were questions about whether Google would grow. That’s the professional atmosphere Grace Wang (PhD ’01) entered when she graduated from Northwestern Engineering with a doctorate in materials science and engineering.

At the time, it felt like an exciting world to Wang. Much has changed since.

“Engineering and technologies are advancing at a much faster pace,” Wang said. “Artificial intelligence, computing, data science, robotics, and life science breakthroughs are emerging. And societal challenges facing us are significant and complex. Food, energy, water, sustainability, education, healthcare, national security. Just to name a few.”

Wang spoke at the 2024 PhD Hooding and Master’s Recognition Ceremony, held June 10, 2024, at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Wang began as Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s (WPI) 17th president in April 2023. She is also a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at WPI.

Grace Wang

During her remarks, Wang shared a quote from WPI alum Robert Goddard, widely known as the father of liquid fueled rocketry.

“Goddard once said, ‘It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow,’” she recited.

Wang came to WPI from The Ohio State University, where she served as executive vice president for research, innovation, and knowledge, and as a professor of materials science and engineering. Prior to her work in academia, Wang served as deputy assistant director for engineering and later as acting assistant director for engineering at the US National Science Foundation (NSF) where she oversaw a funding portfolio of more than $900 million, investing in frontier engineering research, supporting engineering education, and fostering innovation and technology commercialization. 


View photos from the ceremony >>

Dean Christopher Schuh, a classmate of hers at Northwestern Engineering, introduced Wang. For Schuh, it was his first Commencement as dean after starting in August.

“Graduates, the challenges facing humanity are significant, and they are only becoming more complicated and interconnected. The solutions to the challenges we face are rooted in scientific research and require whole-brain thinking,” Schuh said. “Thinking that pairs logic, analysis, and scientific excellence with creativity and an understanding of markets, psychology, and most importantly, people. As engineers, you represent the fulcrum between what’s envisioned in the lab or conference room and what’s adopted in the marketplace and society.

“Whether you are starting new careers or moving up in current ones, whether you plan to join academia or industry, embrace your role as the bridge between these two worlds.”

A graduate waves as she walks into Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Family and friends
A group of onlookers celebrate during the event.
Chris Schuh
Dean Christopher Schuh speaks during the event.
Grad and baby
With a young child on her arm, a graduate walks across the stage and is greeted by Dean Christopher Schuh.
High five
Graduates shake hands with each other as they prepare to walk across the stage.
A group of freshly minted doctors celebrate outside Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Wang has accomplished that. One reason is her willingness to think boldly, which was honed early in her career in Silicon Valley. 

One afternoon, Wang’s boss called her into his office to discuss a concept called perpendicular magnetic recording media (PMRM), which had not yet worked. Wang was aware PMRM could greatly increase data storage capacity but was not sure why somebody would need so much more storage. Wang’s supervisor looked at her over his reading glasses and said, “Someday, people may want to download movies or games directly to their laptops. They need a lot more data storage.”

Of course, Wang’s supervisor was right. Wang and her colleagues demonstrated the scientific concept and launched it into a real marketable product. They could not have done that with small thinking.

“Think about this. Gene editing. Immunotherapy. Robotic limbs. Deep learning neural networks. At the beginning of every breakthrough technology, someone has asked questions that are seemingly impossible,” Wang said. “Today, with advances in computing, in engineering, and in life science, we can ask new questions that we could not have even imagined yesterday. 

“We put humans on the moon before putting wheels on luggage. Sometimes, it is not because we cannot do it. It is because we do not imagine it.” 

Imagination and ability are valuable, but they have more impact when someone respects others and themselves. Wang stressed both during her remarks, remembering how her university campus was hit by a snowstorm, but by the next morning the sidewalks were cleared.

“For anything that gets done well, someone is behind it,” Wang said. “Regardless of what career paths we choose and what jobs we do, we all work with people. Genuinely respect and value others.”  

Wang even extended that courtesy to herself.

Early in her career, Wang was offered an exciting leadership opportunity. There was just one small issue: Wang was expecting, and the timing wasn’t right to take on more professional responsibility when her personal life was about to jump another level. 

She explained herself in a conversation with her boss. 

“He was surprised. He patted his tummy and said, ‘Gee, I look more expecting than you are,’” Wang recalled. “I said, I have a due date and you don’t.”

In offering final advice to graduates, Wang recounted listening to a mentor who told her prior to starting at WPI to eat and sleep well, exercise, and pace herself. It’s OK at times to slow down and accelerate when needed.

“Think boldly as you pave the path forward,” Wang said. “Genuinely respect and value others as you lead. Pace your own journey as you enjoy it along the way.”