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In review: Professor Grivetti presents an emotional lecture
The Last Lecture Series event offers an inspirational and fascinating look at one professor’s journey

Original article written by PAAYAL ZAVERI , Arts Writer, Published on March 1, 2012, The California Aggie

We can all look back on our lives and pinpoint a key moment or decision that changed the course of our lives and led us to where we are now. This was Professor Louis Grivetti’s main message in his Last Lecture titled “From Dinosaurs to Chocolate: Taking the Road Less Traveled.”

His lecture on Tuesday, April 28th 2012 was part of ASUCD’s Last Lecture Series, hosted by the Academic Affairs Commission (AAC). This honors the late Dr. Randy Pausch, the professor at Carnegie Mellon who gave his last lecture called “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” which was subsequently turned into a book called The Last Lecture. This book is an inspiration to millions of people and has inspired UCD’s Last Lecture Series.

“We aim to provide students with the opportunity to get acquainted with and learn from professors in an unconventional, no-textbook-required way and we striveto honor exceptional professors on the UC Davis campus,” said Annemarie Stone, chair of the Academic Affairs Commission and junior English major. “So my favorite portion of the event is when I see that both of these goals are being met. Since this university is so huge, I think that feelings of alienation and apathy are common, and this event strives to check that issue of a growing gap between students and professors.”

Professor Grivetti’s lecture was promising from the start. After the professor himself came down the aisle to thank everyone for attending, baskets of chocolate were passed around for everyone to take samples. Anything involving chocolate must be good so naturally this had audiences even more intrigued.

Graduate student Matthew Lange introduced his mentor noting the impact Dr. Grivetti had on him both professionally and personally. “Dr. Grivetti encouraged me to think broadly as a scholar. His stories of adventure in Botswana, Egypt, and Vietman took me places in my mind and inspired me to go after my dreams. His stories of Peace Corps projects going wrong and his ability to find humor in the face of things that might otherwise be considered tragic was actually quite heroic for me.”

After the AAC and a former student introduced Professor Grivetti, the lecture began.

Professor Grivetti began his talk by saying that there is nothing more important than the “willingness to take risks,” because that is how he has gotten to where he is today. He began the lecture by describing his childhood dream of studying dinosaurs and his efforts in his undergraduate years toward achieving this.

“There are two basic life lessons here especially for both undergraduates and graduate students attending tonight: first, do not be discouraged in your job search you have no reason to complain until you have been turned down by more than 100 potential employers. And when the next rejection letter arrives – do not despair – keep pushing forward – the next letter that follows may be the one that meets your aspirations and professional goals. The second lesson is this: doors of opportunity open and close daily – it may be chance that a door of opportunity opens to you – but chance is not the issue: you must recognize the opportunity and decide to step through that door.”

His recollections about his college days were very entertaining. In particular, he described the importance of general education courses, saying to all the undergraduates, “Never underestimate the value of G.E. classes.” Of course we hear people say this all the time, but now Professor Grivetti has given a real example.

He then went on to talk about a job he landed in Egypt which changed the course of his life. This new job was not about dinosaurs – it had to do with nutrition – something very different than what he had studied as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. It just goes to show that we can never predict anything. During this portion of his career, Grivetti describes his experience of being an American in Egypt during the Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel. He very smoothly tied in important historical events with the course of his own life so we got a real sense of his experience. This was just one of many instances that had an impact on his life. It gave a sense of how much we are impacted by the world around us.

“Several critical events shaped my life while working in Egypt. The first drew me away from any future interests in micropaleontology and single-cell organisms, and ultimately into the integrated fields of geography, health, medicine, and nutrition. One morning while working at Sindion two boys approached me with a concern regarding their friend. One of the boys said to me: Mr. Louis, we are worried about our friend. Why, I asked in return? Because, Mr. Louis, when the three of us go down to the canal and piss, his piss is always yellow or white, and as you know, Mr. Louis, the true color of piss is red!”

“Hematuria – or blood in the urine – is one of the classic physical signs of shistosomiasis or bilharziasis, a debilitating parasitic disease where worms enter the body through contact with irrigation water; the worms mate inside the body; the females lay eggs with sharp spines; these eggs then pass through the human host’s urinary system and rip and tear tissue causing extensive blood loss that passes out with the urine. After just two urine tests, 95% of the students at the Sindion school tested positive for shistosome eggs and/or hematuria. The lesson I learned from these two perceptive Egyptian village boys was that health is relative. I would expect that any of you – if you looked down in the toilet bowl later this evening and saw blood in YOUR urine that you immediately would make an appointment to see your doctor. But not so at this time in Egypt: to these Egyptian boys bloody urine was considered normal. The oddity was NOT having red urine. This event was so pivotal in my life that I renewed my contract with Vanderbilt University, and I made the professional commitment to remain in a health, medical, nutritional field and to work internationally.”

After this, Grivetti elaborated on his career after he returned from Egypt and the path that led him to Davis. He initially came to Davis as a doctoral student in geography and was later hired as an Assistant Professor in both the geography and nutrition departments. This path eventually led him to study the history of chocolate, and so the journey from dinosaurs to chocolate finally makes sense.

“Doors of opportunity open – and they close; opportunities are presented once – and sometimes never again; what you decide to do when presented with a door of opportunity – is up to you. Be prepared for the next door that opens for you!”

He showed a particular enthusiasm for presenting the work of his graduate students and presented several exceptional projects. This accounts for the nearly-full auditorium of the ARC Ballroom, where the lecture took place.

“I am very proud of my graduate students…Cassius Lockett worked in eastern Nigeria among both pastoral and settled Fulani nomads and made the important observation that Fulani women commonly walked 24 miles/day round trip from home to sell food for cash or to barter at local markets, whereas their husbands rode bicycles to the same destination. This gender difference was because Fulani men considered it culturally inappropriate for Fulani women to ride bicycles. So when you go shopping later this weekend in Woodland, don’t be a wimp: walk from Davis to COSTCO and then carry what you bought back to Davis with you – that is essentially what these women did!”

Just from hearing this Last Lecture, it is clear that Professor Grivetti is an exceptional professor with a passion for his work and students. His eloquence and sense of humor made the event very enjoyable and inspirational.


“Building upon the Theseus Project, Antonia-Leda Matalas and I studied how Greeks living in urban Athens secured their food during the Nazi occupation of the city during World War II and the terrible winter of 1941-1942 when approximately 300,000 Athenians starved because the Nazis restricted food imports and most residents were forbidden to leave the city. Those who survived relied heavily upon edible wild plants and a variety of what today would be called “lesser” animal foods (birds, cats, dogs, insects, mice, and various frogs and snakes).”

” The lessons learned from this research also were critical: events such as wars, wide-spread civil unrest, and occupation by foreign powers – happen quickly. For months during and after such events, food supply systems are destroyed. Consider your own case: would you know how to feed yourself and your family in Davis if food supplies from the outside were cut off? After the Davis supermarket and local market shelves have been looted of all remaining food items, and electricity to most sections of town cut off, what would you do to feed your family? Do you know what is edible and growing in your neighborhood and what is not? Could you differentiate between safe and toxic plants and animals? Would you eat laboratory mice; what about pet dogs and cats; what about the fish and turtles in Putah Creek near Mrak Hall? Do you know how to raise food in your backyard? Where would you get seeds? How long does it take to grow food? If you answered “no” or “I don’t know” to these questions – perhaps you should have a 6 month’s supply of non-perishable food in your dorm room, apartment, house, or garage. But also consider that even if you amass this emergency food supply, are you going to share it or not? If yes, share it with whom; if not, how will you protect your food supply from roving gangs of vandals and thieves? My students and I have learned through the years that these and similar questions are posed and answered daily throughout the world today in the 21st century. If you have not experienced or considered them, then truly you are among the lucky.”

Professor Grivetti ended the lecture on an amusing note, in which he presented a dinosaur bone he found when he was very young and invited audiences to come and touch it.

“Professor Grivetti was so excited about his lecture and demonstrated so much enthusiasm for it and his work that I knew it was going to be a great event,” said Stephanie Johnson, sophomore political science major and a member of the Academic Affairs Commission.

Professor Grivetti’s last slide summed up the awestruck and inspirational sentiment of the evening: “We stand on the shoulders of giants; we owe our careers to those who went before us.”

Watch the video of Dr. Grivetti’s Last Lecture

Read the full transcript of Dr. Grivetti’s Last Lecture


An Excerpt from Dr. Grivetti’s Last Lecture, “From Dinosaurs to Chocolate: Taking the Road Less Traveled”

Is it conceivable that the geographical distribution of a plant could determine human freedom vs. slavery or human life vs. death? The answer, unfortunately, is yes.

Consider the Pistacia lentiscus tree with a native habitat throughout the Mediterranean basin – you can even find it in the UC Davis arboretum if you choose to search for it. When farmers cut its trunk and branches a resin called mastic is exuded. This resin, with important culinary and economic value, has been highly regarded for more than 2,500 years.

Grivetti at Mastic Tree

Grivetti studying resin droplets

Although the tree grows in the region from Portugal on the west eastward to Turkey, and across North Africa into the Middle East, the resin can be harvested only in one small geographical area: the Greek island of Xios. Furthermore, a geo-botanical line may be drawn across the island from west to east, one that separates the southern third from the northern districts of the island. Below this line to the south, the resin hardens: above the line and throughout the Mediterranean basin, the mastic resin remains soft and sticky. “So what,” you say: sticky vs. hard? Why is this even worth mentioning? Here is why –

Mastic Resin

Pistacia lentiscus: resin droplets

Prior to 1822 Xios was the island jewel of the Mediterranean. Many European nations had their embassies here. Xios was the western terminus of the Silk Rout that linked China with the Ottoman Empire. The island was wealthy because of mastic production and the vast bulk of the harvested resin was sent to the Ottoman Caliph in Constantinople. In 1822 the Xians joined other Greek revolutionaries and revolted. The Caliph was displeased at the interruption of his mastic supply and ordered Xian islanders to be dealt an object lesson!

The Caliph sent Turkish troops to invade the island in order to secure a continuous supply of the mastic resin. Islanders living above the geo-botanical line were expendable since none were resin harvesters. Many individuals north of the line fled the advancing soldiers and took shelter inside the monastery of Neo Moni but those who sought refuge inside this holy place were seized … and what followed is unthinkable.


Skulls of executed Xians displayed at Nea Moni Monastery, Greek island of Xios: Victims of the 1822 massacre

The evidence cannot be denied. This view reveals just part of the remains of Xians who were executed; their bodies have been exhumed and the bones today are locked inside these cases – lest anyone forget and say such things never happened. The skull below provides forensic evidence for a scimitar thrust through the head. Others were executed by gunshot wounds to the head, leaving entry and exit wounds. Most of these skulls, however, show no overt bone-related injuries. Those unfortunates without such head trauma were executed using the procedure called khazouk – where captives were lifted, dropped, and impaled through the anus upon pointed stakes planted in the ground – a horrifying execution technique that extended suffering for several days before death.


Skull showing result of execution by scimitar thrust

The villages were pillaged north of the geo-botanical “mastic line” where the resin did not harden. This is one such site, the village of Anavatos. When the male defenders were killed, the surviving women – knowing that they would be raped and carted off into slavery – made a collective decision: together, the women with their small children climbed to the precipice at the top of the village, and holding their babies and children in their arms – they jumped to their deaths. The mothers chose the freedom of death, instead of a life of degradation and slavery.

So why mention this historical unpleasantry tonight? What possible lesson is to be learned from this tragic event? In my case the lesson is personal: my wife’s ancestors and immediate family are from Xios Island. Our ancestral island village is Vessa located just south of the geo-botanical mastic line. At Vessa today, the mastic resin still is collected. And less than a quarter mile north of the village … the resin does not harden. In 1822 the invaders allowed my wife’s distant relatives to survive – because they grew and tended the trees that produced mastic resin. In my case the lesson is personal: the fact that my wife and our daughter were even born was determined by the geographical distribution of a sub-set of unique mastic trees – simply because our family happened to originate from a village located geographically south of the line where the resin hardened.

Resin Collection

Xian couple using tools to cut the tree branches to obtain the resin droplets. Space under the tree is cleared of detritus and covered with a fine chalk dust. The resin droplets fall to the ground and harden; they are collected and transported to island warehouses where the droplets are cleaned, graded, and sorted

When I worked on Xios I wrote following passage in my field notebook at the time after staring at these cases of bones:

What have you learned by standing here,
Midst ancient bones from yesteryear?
What are the lessons you can share,
With peaceful peoples everywhere?
We must recall our distant past,
If truly we want peace to last,
But then forgive – and build on trust,
Then work for peace, a peace that’s just.

– Louis E. Grivetti, Ph.D.