An audience in the hundreds packed Memorial Church Wednesday to hear President Marc Tessier-Lavigne share his journey to becoming Stanford’s 11th president.

Tessier-Lavigne spoke as part of the “What Matters to Me and Why” series sponsored by the Office for Religious Life to encourage reflection on matters of personal values and beliefs. In his talk, Tessier-Lavigne, who was appointed president last year, spoke about the importance of family and about how students can best prepare themselves for Stanford.

An accomplished neuroscientist, Tessier-Lavigne shared that he initially questioned whether to pursue science as a career. He said that his parents, who both served in the military, instilled in him and his siblings the importance of community service.

“I actually wrestled with whether my focus on science was appropriate, or whether I should do something more service-oriented,” Tessier-Lavigne said.

His fascination with the “aesthetic beauty of mathematics” led him to study physics at Montreal’s McGill University, where he discovered that he could serve through science.

“In the end, I decided I had to follow my passion for science, convincing myself that science could be used to do good in the world as well,” he said.

Beyond one’s self

Tessier-Lavigne’s discoveries as a neuroscientist have been groundbreaking. He helped identify molecules that direct the formation of connections among nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. These discoveries have advanced the prevention and treatment of neurological injuries and diseases. His message to Stanford students was to find their own passions and to serve “beyond one’s self.”

“Whether it’s advancing knowledge or whether it’s in immediate service of helping people – all of those can be meaningful. The common point is that it’s work that’s advancing the good of society in many, many different ways.”

While Tessier-Lavigne’s passion was science, he said his subsequent philosophy studies as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University were incredibly meaningful.

“Physiology gave me my vocation as a neuroscientist and philosophy opened my mind and taught me how to think,” he said.

Tessier-Lavigne said combining philosophy with his science studies made his experience “transformative.” It’s why he’s been such a firm proponent of advancing the arts and humanities at Stanford and has made it one his major priorities.

“It made me appreciate the importance of the humanities,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “I don’t wish a narrow education on anyone.”

Strong support network

Tessier-Lavigne was the first of his immediate family to attend college. Not knowing what to expect, he was apprehensive.

“I thought when I went to college that I had to plan out my entire life – what I was going to do from the age of 17 to 65 – and that made me very anxious,” he said. “I wish someone would have told me that’s not how life is lived. You live your life in chapters. You will change, the world will change and other opportunities will come along. And what you’re doing narrowly today won’t necessarily prepare you for that. You have to prepare yourself for a lifetime of change.”

Tessier-Lavigne said the fortuitous support of a faculty mentor helped relieve that anxiety, and he said he feels fortunate for having it. It’s his hope that resources available at Stanford will prevent incoming students from suffering the same anxiety.

“I was lucky to have that,” he said. “But it made me determined to not have to rely on luck. When people come here and they don’t have that kind of support, we should provide it for them so they don’t have to stumble through it.” He applauds the Stanford Diversity and First-Gen Office, which provides a counseling and support network for first generation and low-income students.

‘The next level’

Tessier-Lavigne has served as president for less than six months, but that didn’t keep a member of the audience from asking him what he wanted his legacy to be at Stanford.

In response, Tessier-Lavigne recalled becoming a Stanford professor in 2001, a year after John Hennessy took the helm as president. Tessier-Lavigne was a professor of biological science at Stanford from 2001 to 2005 and held the Susan B. Ford Professorship. After working at Genentech, he became president of Rockefeller University before returning to Stanford as president.

“I thought it was an amazing place then,” Tessier-Lavigne said of his initial tenure on campus. “When I came back 16 years later, I found it was even more extraordinary. Look at the arts initiative, the financial aid for our students, the academic expansion – whether its biomedical science or the economics department – or the building projects across campus, it’s just extraordinary. John took the university to another level. I would like my legacy to be for people to look back at my time here and say that, working with the community, he too took an extraordinary university to an even higher level.”