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Caltech Honors Graduates at 130th Commencement Ceremony

Published on Saturday, June 15, 2024 | 6:16 am

On Friday, June 14, Caltech celebrated its 130th Commencement ceremony, awarding 236 bachelor’s degrees, 156 master’s degrees, and 200 doctoral degrees to a total of 585 graduates.

The class of 2024 has faced unique challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so this year’s event proved particularly celebratory. For many of the undergraduates, today’s Commencement ceremony marked their first opportunity to commemorate such a significant milestone in person after missing out on high school graduations and beginning their Caltech journey virtually.

Graduate students also relished the moment, remembering the obstacles they had to overcome during their degree programs.

At the ceremony, keynote speaker Jensen Huang, founder and CEO of NVIDIA, delivered a thoughtful address to graduates. NVIDIA, a pioneer in accelerated computing, is one of the most valuable companies in the world and is credited with inventing graphics processing units (GPUs), which have helped fuel the artificial intelligence revolution.

Huang, who has been listed more than once as one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People,” shared stories from his 31 years at NVIDIA, articulating lessons learned and advice to graduates entering a rapidly evolving world.

He spoke about the historic trajectory of computation, from the advent of the IBM System/360 in the 1980s to AlexNet in 2016, a groundbreaking convolutional neural network that was trained using NVIDIA GPUs.

“We saw the potential of deep learning and believed in it,” said Huang. “No one knew how far deep learning could scale, but if we didn’t build it, we would never know.”

Huang emphasized how NVIDIA reinvented itself at every turn, pushing the frontiers of advanced computation and revolutionizing the industry through both graphics processing and supercomputers used to train AI models like ChatGPT. He urged graduates to be nimble in the face of change.

“The computer industry is transforming from its foundations,” he said. “Computers today are the single most important instrument of knowledge and are foundational to every single industry and every field of science. If we’re transforming the computer so profoundly, it will, of course, have implications in every industry.”

Huang also reminded graduates to remain committed to their work and to face challenges with resolve.

“I hope you believe in something—something unconventional, something unexplored,” he said. “But let it be informed and let it be reasoned. Then, dedicate yourself to making it happen. You may find your GPU. You may find your CUDA [NVIDIA’s parallel computing platform and programming model]. You may find your generative AI. You may find your NVIDIA. I hope you’ll see setbacks as new opportunities. Your pain and suffering will strengthen your character, your resilience, and agility, and they are your ultimate superpowers.”

Dave Thompson (MS ’78), chair of the Caltech Board of Trustees, congratulated graduates at the ceremony and welcomed special guests: members of the first class of undergraduate women to enter Caltech in 1970, many of whom were celebrating the 50th anniversary of their graduation. He invited them to stand and be recognized.

“They started something that has become really big,” Thompson said. “To date, nearly 3,000 women have earned their undergraduate degrees from the Institute. In addition, some 1,700 women have earned their doctorates here at Caltech. And let’s not forget that about 1,500 women have undertaken postdoctoral work at Caltech just in the last 25 years. Moreover, many distinguished women are currently part of Caltech’s faculty and leadership team.”

Thompson also reflected on the past year of breakthroughs at Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which Caltech manages for NASA. Among many accomplishments, he highlighted the application of AI to better predict monsoon patterns and cancer cases that are likely to metastasize, the development of a catalyst that improves the safety and environmental impact of a common chemical production process, and the launch of the Psyche spacecraft to explore a metal-rich asteroid.

The Institute awarded bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees to much fanfare from the crowd, including traditional celebrations from several undergraduate houses. For Venerable House graduates, train whistles were blown; for Lloyd House, a gong was rung; for Dabney House, housemates clapped rhythmically and sounded a Viking horn; for Avery House, a triangle was played; for Blacker House, a recording of the sound of a saw was played; and for Fleming House, the Fleming Cannon was fired three times during the ceremony and once at its conclusion.

After the conferral of degrees, Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum awarded four special prizes and shared a message with the Institute’s newest alumni, congratulating them and urging them to balance innovation and progress with a responsibility to society.

“You graduate at a time when change in science and technology and in society is accelerating at breakneck speed,” Rosenbaum said.

“With change comes responsibility. As scientists and engineers, we are trained to employ AI and machine learning across a broad spectrum of applications and to understand their potential, both to improve the human condition and to cause harm. We have a responsibility not only for reflection but for action, a responsibility to evaluate premises using data and evidence, and a responsibility to situate discovery in a broad societal context.”

He closed with a charge to graduates:

“As you embark on your new beginnings, you have the freedom to reimagine the shape of your lives and the directions of society. Change is manifest and inevitable, but it will not be powerful except in the context of our defining values. Congratulations!”

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