Dr. Jacqueline Barton ’70, the John G. Kirkwood and Arthur A. Noyes Professor in the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology, urged the Class of 2021 to think big.

When she graduated from the Riverdale School for Girls, she said she had no idea that she might one day be a research chemist and live in California. “I didn’t take chemistry at Riverdale,” she said. “Who would have thought?”

She went on to receive the National Medal of Science, the highest honor bestowed upon American scientists and engineers by the president of the United States, for her research investigating a new property of the DNA helix.

In her research, she has investigated what happens when electrical energy is applied to a DNA structure. The DNA strand behaves like a wire as long as there are no imperfections or mutations, she said. The research holds promise for learning more about diagnosing and treating genetic conditions. “Who would have thought that DNA would be like a wire,” she said, “but I listened to my data and I listened to my gut.”

She said her story illustrates that there are possibilities for the graduates that they can’t even imagine yet. “I couldn’t possibly have imagined my life today when I was sitting in your shoes.”

She also spoke about the importance of her Riverdale friends. She recently celebrated the 50th reunion of her Girls School class on Zoom. It was a small class and most of her classmates participated. “What was really remarkable was I knew all these people,” she said. “It was the same gang. I knew them well. We really had grown up together. I am sure the same holds true now for you and your colleagues. You’ve shared growing up together here at Riverdale and whether or not you see one another on a frequent basis going forward, you should know they will be your colleagues forever.”

She concluded by saying, “Go with your gut. Follow your passion. Do that which is authentic to you. Armed with the tools that you have learned here, you are ready to plot your own path. I know you are going to be successful in whatever arena you choose and years hence, when you look back on it, I’m sure many of you will say, ‘Who would have thought.’ ”

You can listen to her full speech here.