The Wheel of Time – 2.4.22

Dear College of Science Faculty and Staff,

The Wheel of Time is a fourteen-volume fantasy series, now in a visually stunning first season on Amazon. Conquering the books was a fun bonding experience with my daughters! Fantasy is an interesting genre that has attributes surprisingly relevant to our College. First, fantasy is often set in medieval-type times, when the population is very small, so you are known by your name, not only in your village but even across the seven kingdoms. Second, each person brings expertise, be it as fletcher, blacksmith, wheelwright, farrier, baker, healer or alchemist. If you need special assistance, you seek out the expert. Third, in those times, with Magic all around, there are castles, armies, banners, and battles against frightening enemies.

Like fantasy villages, in the College of Science, we often know each other’s names (and can readily introduce ourselves!), and when we need special help, we seek out the expert – in HR, Grants Administration and so on. Indeed, our culture of respect values each person as an individual who brings their expertise and diverse background to fulfill our mission. Much of our expertise is held in Departments, which are ‘collections of expertise’, each of which is a ‘discipline,’ meaning ‘a branch of knowledge’. The notion of scientific disciplines stretches back to the dawn of universities, and has become labeled as a dusty, old-fashioned concept. This is totally wrong. Far from being dusty, disciplines are vibrant collections of state-of-the-art expertise, that can be put together with that from other disciplines, to learn something wonderful. No-one can know everything, that’s why we have scholars who understand algebraic geometry, quantum theory, stem cells, molecular structure, brain circuitry or coastal ecosystems. Understanding how to use this knowledge requires another type of discipline, the hard work kind, that always has valuable outcomes, and why our trainees benefit from some disciplinary education.

There’s a further fantasy reference that seems right for our College. Departments are sometimes seen as ‘castles’ – defensible units, where knowledge and expertise can flow in and out, but only when the drawbridge is down. The notion that the castle closes to protect inhabitants and defend their territory, is a dusty one. Rather, our Departments seem more like army encampments, tents spread across a field, Lannister or Stark banners flying, members practicing combat, and cooking their dinners, within their own cultures. But the border between the Lannister and Stark encampments is quite open, with shared food, shared community, and expert smithies exchanging ideas. Importantly, when it’s time for combat, the two camps march side by side, one army, together vanquishing enemies. I think the army encampment analogy is a good one for our excellent, expert Science Departments, who work together, across College and University and solve fundamental challenges.

Beyond fantasy, into the reality of 2022, across our College and Northeastern University, almost every research problem requires the convergence of multiple disciplines to approach a solution. We are truly fighting for equity and inclusion, to protect and heal the planet, to improve health and well-being, to make new materials, medicines, and energy sources, and to discover the amazing things we do not know. Thank you for contributing your expertise to this important mission.

Have a pleasant weekend.

Best regards,

dean signature

Hazel Sive PhD
Dean, College of Science
Northeastern University