Discovering the Unexpected – 4.1.22

Dear College of Science Faculty and Staff, How do you know what you don’t know? At a deep level, understanding something really new is the foundation of scientific discovery. You poke around at the edge of your knowledge, and maybe a bit cracks open to reveal something unexpected. Unexpected discoveries in science are thrilling. The discovery of the antibiotic penicillin is a paradigm, uncovered after a lab bench was left uncleaned for a couple of weeks. Dr. Alexander Fleming was the owner of the bench, and he might just have tidied the mess and moved on. But, and here’s what’s important, before he cleaned up, he noticed that some two-week old bacterial cultures had become infected with mold, and that the mold was killing the disease-causing bacteria. The mold contained the chemical penicillin, that went on to save more than a hundred million lives. It was careful looking and thinking about effects of vacation time on the bacteria that was crucial.   When you’re a scientist, you can readily miss insights. The mind has to shake itself free, to look at data with clear eyes, and no preferred hypothesis. In 2009, Amanda Dickinson, a postdoctoral trainee in my research group, identified cells that would later form the mouth in frog embryos. She could remove the cells and there was no mouth. We were so focused on mouth formation, at the time we didn’t look at other parts of the embryo. One day we did however, and noticed that not only was the mouth gone, but the rest of the face was very thin and had greatly mis-formed jaws. In that instant, we realized that the future mouth region may control how the whole face formed! It was truly a wow! moment – we named the region the ‘extreme anterior domain’ (EAD), and Nova made a great video about it. Humans have an EAD too, that may have guided the shaping of your own familiar face. At Northeastern, the project is progressing in Mugar, with postdoc Ashwin Lokapally and undergraduate Cortney Cagle, who will present at RISE.  Scientific discovery is mind-expanding, fascinating and often connected to translational, practical outcomes. In this faculty hiring season, thanks to the hard work of search committees (THANK YOU!), we are inviting into Northeastern a cadre of fearless explorers across our Science disciplines and beyond, who will open brilliant, unexpected landscapes. For our Muslim College of Science members, warm wishes for a peaceful Ramadan. Ramadan Mubarak!


dean signature

Hazel Sive PhD
Dean, College of Science
Northeastern University