Professors share life lessons in Mortar Board lecture
“Don’t drink the yellow vodka” was one of many lessons distilled during “The Moral of the Story: Life Lessons from Professors,” a lecture presented by the senior honor society Mortar Board, last Thursday.
The lecture, which filled McConomy Auditorium to capacity, consisted of talks by four professors, including Rebecca Nugent, associate teaching professor in the department of statistics; David Kosbie, assistant teaching professor in the School of Computer Science; John Mackey, teaching professor and associate department head of the department of mathematical sciences; and Robert F. Culbertson, adjunct assistant professor of entrepreneurship in the Tepper School of Business.
Each professor talked about the lessons they learned throughout their life that they thought would be most valuable to Carnegie Mellon students. Nugent, who won the 2012–13 Elliott Dunlap Smith Award for Teaching and Educational Service, presented by the Dietrich College of Humanities & Social Sciences, called her talk “Life Advice and Wisdom ... Or, Don’t Do What I Did.” Nugent broke her life up into discrete lessons, like “don’t drink the yellow vodka,” an adage Nugent drew from a trip to Antarctica.
In Antarctica, Nugent said, the researchers they visited had distilled their own dubious, yellow-colored vodka after running out of what they had brought with them. “He took the shot, as I watched his brain cells melt out of his ears, I realized ‘don’t drink the yellow vodka.’ ”
“For two to three weeks we knew nothing of what happened in the world,” Nugent said. “You realized how much noise there is all the time, and you’re just quiet for a few weeks,” she added. “If you let yourself be overloaded, just go be silent. That’s what I learned on the Antarctica trip.”
Vaasavi Unnava, a first-year economics and statistics major, said that Nugent’s proclamation that the decisions students make now don’t have as much clout as they think they will struck her the hardest. “I really took that away because I think that a lot of the time, especially students at CMU tend to make decisions thinking, ‘Oh how will this impact my future? This will be so crazy. I’m going to end up completely in the wrong place because of this,’ ” Unnava said. “But making decisions for just yourself right now is a really amazing thing.”
The next speaker, Kosbie, winner of the 2012 Herbert A. Simon Award for Teaching Excellence in Computer Science, presented by the School of Computer Science, similarly broke his life into chunks that demonstrated times when he learned lessons that he wanted to pass on to Carnegie Mellon students.
Kosbie began with the story of a student who completed his class, 15-112: Fundamentals of Programming and Computer Science, while undergoing treatment for cancer.
After the student passed away from cancer, Kosbie was torn about whether or not to take time from his busy schedule to attend the funeral in Baltimore.
Kosbie made the drive, however, and was the only Carnegie Mellon staff member there.
“When you know — when your gut is telling you — what to do, just do it,” Kosbie said regarding the experience.
Kosbie also made points similar to Nugent’s about the choices students make impacting their future.
“You really don’t know at this stage of life where you’re going,” said Kosbie, who originally began his career at Harvard University as a pre-med student, but now teaches computer science.
Nkindé Ambalo, a first year electrical and computer engineering major, said that he was struck by how much one’s life can change during and after college.
“We are pretty much all on this crazy path, so you don’t know what you’re going to do — none of [the speakers] knew what they were going to do,” Ambalo said. “Most of them started out doing something that was completely unrelated to what they do now — not even just teaching but their field itself.... It was really interesting to see how they started out doing one thing, then had these enormous changes, before and after college.”
The next speaker, Mackey, told what was essentially the story of his life — how he ended up earning his Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii, and how, as a white male, he experienced the other side of prejudice at the hands of Hawaiian natives.
According to Mackey, this experience gave him valuable perspective.
“When you vary your experiences, you will go through different stages and you will find yourself,” Mackey said, linking this point to Carnegie Mellon student life by saying that students too often break into cliques and factions rather than forming a cohesive body.
The last speaker was Culbertson (CIT ‘73, GSIA ‘74 , CIT ‘75), who received his bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees from Carnegie Mellon.
Culbertson’s lecture focused on what he considered the most important lesson he had learned throughout life, “Do something even if it’s wrong.”
Culbertson also focused on some of the important mentors he had throughout his life, especially at Carnegie Mellon. “Great teachers cause you to have conversations you never wanted to have, make you do things you never wanted to do, and bring you to places you never thought you would go,” Culbertson said.
“The Moral of the Story: Life Lessons from Professors,” was presented by the Carnegie Mellon Mortar Board, a branch of the National College Senior Honor Society.
According to Carnegie Mellon Mortar Board’s website, “Mortar Board members are not only recognized as the top scholars and leaders on their campuses, but are selected based on dedication to scholarship, leadership, and service to the campus and Pittsburgh community.”