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Faculty of Health, Engineering and Science - Occasional Speaker

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Dr Erica Smyth


Chancellor, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. It is a delight to be here today. Walking into this room of 2000 people who are all brimming with pride is a great feeling.

Although I will be addressing the new graduates, I hope everyone here will take the opportunity to reflect a little on their own lives and achievements as I try to reflect on mine.

Graduates- I know that many of you have overcome significant challenges to be able to receive your degrees today.

Some of you will be from country WA or from overseas and I know from my own experiences this will not have been easy.

It's been almost 45 years since I started my first degree at UWA. I was a country girl from Geraldton and when 20 of us came to Perth in 1970 to study only four of us passed all of our first year units at first attempt. The distractions of moving to the big smoke were just too great for many of us country kids. I'm sure if you come from rural or remote WA you will have been distracted too.

Later I went to Canada to complete my Masters so I can empathise with those of you from overseas. In those days I felt really alone, I knew no one, I was half way round the world - where it snowed-, I could not afford the cost of a phone call home and it took more than 3 weeks to get a reply from my Mum by snail mail.

I know it is now a bit easier with mobile phones, Skype and Vibe and Facebook and Twitter but being physically separated from family can still be difficult.

Some of you are mature age and part time students and many of you will have already faced some of life's challenges. These may have been financial, or health or disability or relationship related, or they could have been about your low self-esteem, or maybe about dealing with drugs or alcohol; but clearly ECU gave you the opportunity and you have all met these issues head on and you are dealing with them - I congratulate you.

I know that all of you will all now face new or different challenges as life happens but it will be easier for you because you can stand on your science, engineering, mathematics or IT based platform of your degree.

You now know you can intelligently research topics, reach your own conclusions and make your own decisions. I hope by now you have learnt to be cynical about the many internet offers of miracle cures, weight loss formulas and fortunes you have inherited in Nigeria just waiting for your bank account details - and that you have learnt to do regular computer backups quicker than I did.

40 years ago I needed confidence in my scientific capabilities. I was 5 weeks into my first permanent job as a geologist, and just 3 weeks away from attending my Science graduation ceremony, when I developed Type 1 Diabetes. I was living in Newman at the time and I did not want to think anything was wrong with me so the diagnosis was late and the Royal Flying Doctor Service saved my life when it flew me to Perth as I went into a diabetic ketoacidosis coma.

My understanding of science was critical for me as I developed an understanding of my disease and it enabled me to take control of my own life and to continue with my career. I admit there were a few times when I scared the people around me if my blood sugar got too low but I was open about the risks and my friends and colleagues helped.

I started taking control, one step at a time but gradually became more confident.

I know the importance of the engineering and computer science professions as they have enabled the development of my mobile blood glucose test equipment and my insulin pump. I love instrument engineers.

I now lead the Diabetes Research Foundation of WA, a fundraising organisation that supports diabetes research here. I commend you to our website. We are a social media savvy NFP.

Today is a positive milestone for all of you but it is also just another point in your life journey. The technical skills you now have are only part of the formula for a satisfying life. Your interactions with other people will determine so many more parts of your life and whether you end up happy at work and at home.

What will you see when you look back in 40 years time? Will you see yourself as a success and how will you measure it? If you think that how much money you made will define your success, I believe you need a rethink.

I believe success is about earning the respect of others. It is about how you choose to interact with other people.

Looking back

· Will you have learnt to genuinely apologise when you behaved badly,

· Will you have shared the credit when things went well and taken responsibility when they don’t?

· Will you have treated other people how you wanted to be treated yourself and will you have controlled your temper and sarcasm?

· Will you have shown patience and empathy in your dealing with your work colleagues, the sick, elderly, your partner, children and extended family?

These are just some of the behaviors that will determine whether people want you in their team:- in sport or work or socially.

I know it is easy to cause distress to others because I can measure its impact. If I get angry or sad or stressed then my blood sugar control goes out the window. I can measure it on my glucose monitor. We therefore need to recognise the invisible physical impact our words and deeds can have on other people’s lives. Road rage creates more road rage, a smile creates more smiles in return but stress can make people physically and mentally ill.

When you reflect back will you know your success was obtained by being positive and generous or was it at someone else's cost? Will you be able to proudly stand and say “I succeeded because I did my best, I did not intentionally hurt others and I positively contributed to my family and community?"

If you can achieve these things, and it is not easy, you will have earned the respect of others and, by my standards, you will have been a real success.

I therefore wish you all a very successful life.

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