Marc Nantel’s blast from the recent past

In the spirit of convocation week, associate vice-president of Research and Innovation Marc Nantel shares his blast from the recent past with InsideNC.

Below is the text of a commencement speech he gave to the 2006 graduating class that included NC’s Photonics students.

Commencement speech, Niagara College, June 13, 2006

Good evening, and thank you for this most gracious introduction that couldn’t have been better if I had written it myself (which I did). Dr. President Dan, Dr. Dean Christine, dear honourable guests and, most importantly, graduates, thank you for having me here tonight. It’s an honour for me to have been asked to address you on this august occasion – it feels more like June to me, but anyway. I hope to be able to convey a few words of wisdom to you tonight. Not too many since I don’t have much grey hair yet, but hopefully useful ones on which you can build your life of success. And if you should build your life on my words and fail miserably, I will deny we ever had this chat.

Yes, I’ve been involved with the Photonics programs here at Niagara College, and some of you in the audience tonight are graduates from this program, a very fine program indeed, if I may say so myself, thankyouverymuch!…[look mighty proud, with some hand movement for emphasis]. But I’m sure I speak for everyone here when I say that it must feel GOOD to be graduating! Doesn’t it? I want to hear how good you feel. Give me a great big “Yeah!” on my cue: Does it feel GOOD to be graduating?! (“YEAH!!!”, hopefully, from the crowd. If not, switch to: Well, you are obviously not that keen on graduating and we’ll expect to see you in class again in the Fall. Do you want to keep the same locker?…). That’s great, just awesome!

Aaaah, graduating! I’ve been there, I love it! Although, in my days, they didn’t have graduation ceremonies for pre-school, then kindergarden, then primary school, etc… They only had real ones like this one! Thass da real thang, baby! Now, if you’re as excited now as I was then, you probably want to gather in a huge posse, right?, throw all your books and papers and lab reports – and the love letters you never sent to the cute girl in the library – into a great big, mother pile for a ritual bonfire, right?, lighting it up with a collection of matches, lighters, magnifying glasses and wooden sticks rubbed together, high-fiving everyone around you and dancing all around in a frenzy as they burn, baby, burn while singing to the top of your lungs: “It’s over! It’s over! It’s over! Whoo-hoo! Whoo-hoo!” [running around the stage, flinging my tie around as I dance or wrapping it around my head, if I can]… Well don’t.

 I’ll give you three words of advice – or two, depending on how you count hyphenated words – and these words are Life-Long Learning! Life-Long Learning.

Now, why these three words? I mean, the English dictionary has hundreds of thousands of words in it that are much funnier than “Life-Long Learning”. Let me explain. You’re graduating today and you should be congratulated. You’ve got all that new knowledge and those new skills and you’re preparing to take the workforce by storm. And to work hard. And to be productive. And, gosh darnit, to pay taxes! And even, best of all, eventually, to support my retirement through your payments to the Canadian Pension Plan. But I digress. Like I was saying, you’ve got all those new skills and they’re still fresh. You’re the best, the future, the big cheese… But left on the counter on a hot Summer day, cheese tend to get old and moldy. Or at the very least it dries up and gets all hard. Depends on the humidity level. And this is where life-long learning comes in: Humility (not humidity). You’ve got to be humble enough to want to continue to learn new things – as they relate to your career, in this particular case – because the knowledge you have now will only take you so far. But you know that, I trust. I know that you know that what you know now isn’t all you should know, you know?

Look, I’ll take a photo of everybody with my cell phone. Pretty cool, huh? There’s a 1.3 megapixel CCD in there. CCDs – or charged-coupled devices – have all but replaced film as a way of capturing photographic images. Well, believe it or not, when I was your age, lo! these 20 years ago, we had electricity and television, oh yes! and even video-cassette recorders – you know, these Betamax things? – but we didn’t have CCDs! Not unless you were an astronomer with a huge research grant. The first CCD was invented in 1969 at Bell Labs by George Smith and William Boyle, a Canadian as a matter of fact. There were trying to make progress toward a picture-phone. Well, now we have videoconferencing which, while not using a phone per se – things are done through computers and the internet – the cameras used are all based on CCDs. So score one for Smith and Boyle. The first imaging CCD was produced by Fairchild Electronics in 1974 and had a format of 100×100 pixels. And the astronomers – who wanted something more practical than film, started using them in 1979. The first commercially available digital camera was the 1991 Kodak DCS-100. It used a 1.3 megapixel sensor – the same number of pixels as this little phone camera – and was priced at $13,000 US. That was for the media types and way, WAY early adopters… with a lot of money to burn.

In 1997 the first megapixel cameras for consumers were marketed and it still cost several thousand dollars. And now, it’s in your phone for free (almost, you have to get a long service contract or sign away your first-born to the telephone company to get this upgrade…). So in a short 15 years – from 1991 to 2006 – CCD technology went from being an ultra-specialized toy for scientists and rich photographers to being in the hands of millions of chatty teenagers worldwide. 15 years is not a lot of time on the scale of a working career. If you were a photojournalist in 1991 who was doing fine with film and you refused to take the technological turn, you’re in deep doo-doo now because Kodak doesn ’t make film cameras anymore. And pretty soon, you won’t be able to find 35-mm film that easily. Life-long learning. You gotta keep up with the times.

And that’s just the technical aspect of things. I would suggest that it’s not enough to keep yourself sharp in your field of expertise, but also to reach out to other realms of knowledge that can help you out in your career. Take my case, for example. I graduated with a Ph.D. in Plasma Physics in 1994. I worked on x-ray lasers. Sounds sexy, but it’s actually quite messy. You have to aim a HUGE laser – sometimes as big as a football field – at a poor little piece of metal (germanium, in my case) and explode the bejeesus out of it. [Make explosion noise in the mike] Somewhere in the exploding plasma, an x-ray laser happens for about one nanosecond – that’s a billionth of a second! And then, because it’s such a big laser, it has to cool down for 20 minutes before we can do it all again. Well, I guess it IS a bit like sex! In any case, it was a very precise set of skills and knowledge.

For my first postdoc, I went to Paris to do more x-ray lasering. Not much of a stretch, except that we could have wine in the lab, something that even in Niagara, I don’t suspect your were allowed to do! Then I spent three years at the University of Michigan – GO Wolverines, GO! – this time with much smaller lasers with very short pulses making x-ray sources – still from exploding poor pieces of metal – but much shorter in duration: 1 picosecond or a millionth of a millionth of a second. So there was a change here: I had to learn new laser and diagnostics technology.

Then I came back to Canada to take up a position as Senior Staff Scientist at Photonics Research Ontario – the predecessor to the Centre for Photonics at OCE – to set up a new lab for laser micromachining. Okay, it’s STILL about shooting lasers at poor pieces of metal to damage them, but this time it’s more about the hole left behind – the feature you want to machine – than the plasma flying off it and the light it emits. Major new skills learnt: writing grant proposals, establishing multi-partner collaborations, managing research budgets. Then, I visited Niagara College in June 1999 and was greeted by Santa Claus – errr, I mean Bob Birrell – who bemoaned not having programs in photonics. And that was the last main turn in my career. Now, most of my work is project management. The programs in photonics at Niagara and Algonquin College represent $20-million over 7 years, and they’ve been my life for the past 6 years. So in a short 12 years, I’ve gone from lab rat and serial abuser of poor pieces of metal to Director of Photonics Education and Training. I loved what I did at every turn. And if I hadn’t learnt new tricks along the way, there’s no way I would have managed it.

Life-long learning. These three words will be the most important words you’ll hear your whole life. That is, second only to “Dear, I think I’m pregnant”. Thank you, and have a good life.

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