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Sandra Hewett Delivers 2014 Faculty Address

Hewett: "Identify the outliers. Better yet, be one!"

May 12, 2014 | Article by: Sarah Scalese

Sandra Hewett, Convocation Speaker

Sandra Hewett, the Beverly Petterson Bishop Professor of Neuroscience, as well as a professor in the Department of Biology delivered the faculty address at The College of Arts and Sciences' 2014 Convocation, which was held on Saturday, May 10 in the Carrier Dome. Below is a transcript of her remarks. 

I wish to extend a warm welcome to the family and friends and a hearty congratulations to the Class of 2014 on this most auspicious occasion.  Today, we all come together to recognize your achievements, as individuals and in the collective, to celebrate, to say thank you and goodbye.  BUT, before we can do that, I have been asked to provide you with some words of wisdom and inspiration; an invitation I was so honored to receive; one that caused my heart to quicken and my palms to sweat.  I’d like to imagine that every convocation speaker has the same response.

Well that response was rapidly followed by a bit of trepidation.  What good advice, can I give to you that you might actually remember? What could be important enough to take up your time on this joyous day?  And so in the spirit of the author Sue Monk Kidd, I have decided to suggest a couple of things to you that I believe matter.

As I look out over this sea of graduation gowns and mortarboards, I can’t help but marvel at the diversity of your class. You come from all over the world, from different cultures and varied backgrounds.  Some of you are from families whose parents and ―maybe even ― grandparents have college degrees and this sojourn between high school and the quote, unquote “real world” was just expected.  Many of you, like I was, are first-generation college students, with no less of an expectation that you would make the same journey. There are those of you who took a short break and ―others a little bit longer ― between high school and college. Some of you, I know, have children here today, cheering you on.  You are military veterans and the soon to be commissioned.  Some of you will be pursuing advanced degrees, others will become gainfully employed, and still others―as a student recently told me ― will follow where the winds blow.

But today, you all have one thing in common.  You worked diligently, persistently and even passionately toward this singular goal.  Today, the prize is in sight.  You kept your eye on the ball. Ok, it may have wandered a bit on a few occasions, but you are here and will attain your college degree, that is, just as soon as I stop speaking.

But before I do, I am going to tell you a story today about when I failed to take my eye off the prize; when the pursuit of a singular objective caused me to miss something that turned out to be very important.  Let me first reassure you that it wasn’t catastrophic, in fact what I missed was indeed found. But the experience changed the way I approached my thinking in the laboratory (as Dean Langford mentioned, I am a scientist) and in general.  Let me explain.

When I was a post-doctoral fellow (this is the time of additional scientific training that one undertakes after they earn their PhD and before they apply for a faculty position), I started working with what are termed primary cells. What they are isn’t so important, but what you need to know is that this is very time-consuming, labor intensive and expensive.  The cells have to be grown from fresh tissue every week and can only be used for a finite period of time.  So my husband, a smart and capable scientist himself, asked me why I was still doing this when we (meaning he) could immortalize my cells. This effectively makes them self-renewing, perpetual if you will.  Basically, I would now be able to grow or propagate these cells in culture indefinitely.

So, using the magic of modern science, he set about the process and did indeed successfully immortalize my cells. They grew beautifully and for all intents and purposes appeared, outwardly at least, normal. This is until I tried to produce the response from these transformed cells that I had been studying all along in the primary cells.

It didn’t work. The cells no longer responded.  So effectively, the cells were worthless to me ―at least so I thought.  So I threw them in the deep freeze and forgot about them. 

I am figuring that at this point you all realize that this might have been a mistake!

So yes, I forgot about them ―until about 3 year later. At this time, we had moved to our first faculty positions, at what will remain an unnamed former Big East rival.  One day, I was going through the scientific literature, as all good scientists do, and I came across a paper that was published in a top medical science journal that gave me pause.  In that paper, the authors presented data, facts, that explained exactly why my cells no longer elicited the response I had been studying.  It turned out that the magic of modern science my husband used to transform my cells involved a protein made by viruses and in the paper they determined that this viral protein effectively shut down the cells ability to fight the infection, as it were. So in a nutshell, the scientists had determined a piece of the virus’ defensive strategy. And when we understand any defensive strategy, we can work to devise a more effective offensive strategy. 

To think, I had thrown those cells away. I had become so focused on my original goal ―laudable and essential as it seemed to me at the time ― that I missed an opportunity to explore a second perhaps more significant line of investigation. I clearly did not recognize, as Alexander Graham Bell said famously, that “when one door closes another opens”. This quote is widely interpreted to mean that in defeat opportunity exists. However, I would like to take some license, add a bit of nuance, and suggest to you that that it might also mean that opportunity can exist in unexpected places, following unexpected events and, in our case, with unexpected results.  Only if we willingly shift our gaze, even when things are going just fine, might we recognize not just what is currently important, but ― what might be potentially important.

But what I told you about is pretty cut and dry.  We made a change and it altered the result completely. In science, and in life, unfortunately, results are rarely that clear cut. In the laboratory, we painstakingly repeat our experiments to determine whether the results are reproducible. And yet, there will always be some piece of data or information that doesn’t agree with the majority; it is distant from other observations.

These results are termed outliers. I imagine that this term means something similar to each of you. Outliers are different; they might be so far-removed from the main group that we dismiss them, or they could sit just outside and complicate our interpretations. As scientists, we can employ mathematics, statistics if you will, to legitimately remove that data point from our data set, because it deviates so much from the average measurement that it must have occurred by chance, by happenstance ―because you students must not have performed the experiment correctly (well that is what some of us think some of the time). 

But should we? Is it possible that if I, you, or we, look really closely at those outliers that we might find something interesting, something that forces us to test our assumptions, in scientific parlance, to rethink our hypothesis? This anomaly, as it were, just might provoke us to “think different”, which ― by the way― is an old advertising slogan of Apple’s. We all know how well thinking differently has worked for them.

Well, what I have found is that paying particular attention to that which does not fit the norm allows all of us to avoid group think, the acceptance of conventional wisdom and conformity to group values. This then leaves us open to critically evaluating alternative outcomes and, dare I say, alternative viewpoints.  By doing so we resist continuing to do things the way they have always been done.  Complacency is lost and the words uttered to me by one of my research assistants when I mused about developing a new scientific method ― “If it worked that way someone would have already figured it out” would be banished from our vernacular, forever.

By the way, they didn’t.

We did. 

And so, I challenge each of you to ask questions (constantly), to collect information (data), to analyze the material (results), to refine or formulate new concepts (hypotheses), to test them (experiment) and to implement them (execute). For it is by pushing boundaries, by focusing on what lies outside the norm, recognizing what might be potentially important though perhaps not of immediate importance, that discovery or innovation in any discipline, be it science, medicine, philosophy, public policy, economics, education, art, film, or dance is made.  So Class of 2014:  identify the outliers. Better yet, be one!

Congratulations. On behalf of the entire faculty, I wish you happiness, good health, and much success.  

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Sarah Scalese