I’m Hazel Sive, Dean of the Northeastern University College of Science and I’m thrilled to be here today!
What a wonderful occasion! What great happiness all round!
My warmest congratulations to each of you graduating.
My congratulations to your families and to everyone who has supported you!
My congratulations to your teachers who have guided you!
Let’s give a round of applause for each graduate, your families and each person who has supported or guided you!
You are very smart, not only to have achieved a degree in Science, but to have chosen a pathway to one through the Northeastern University College of Science and through our Northeastern Global University!
I know your pathway has been challenging, but that is what makes your science degree so valuable, and having crossed the finish line, you’re amongst the most employable people on the planet. You’re qualified to take forward what we call in the College, the Good Power of Science, and build your next steps.
Very well done!
Now, Commencement is a time when lots of inspirational advice gets thrown around, and you’ve just heard some terrific words from our guest speaker.
“Change the world!” “Follow your passion!” “Make a difference!” “Fix the Planet”!
The advice is a vote of confidence in your talent, but it can be a bit bewildering to know what to do with it.
So, I thought we might explore the topic of Advice today, and perhaps make ourselves a useful framework.
Let’s start with a poll.
How many pieces of advice do you think you’ve received in your lifetime?
Hard one! Give it a guesstimate.
And when I hit your guesstimate, raise your hand to tell us.
Ten pieces of advice in your lifetime
One Thousand pieces of advice in your lifetime
One Hundred Thousand
That’s a lot of advice.
And what did you do with this advice? Did you throw it away, archive it in some way, consider it, or decide to follow the suggestion?
Now let’s deal with all this advice. I’d like to invite you to take all the advice you’ve received throughout your life – that may be sticking to your clothes, in your pockets, filling your shoes, sitting on your head or in your head.
Please take this advice and remove it and put it on the floor next to you, or in front of you or on your lap. That’s right, make yourself a pile. Those are some big heaps of Advice. We’ll come back to them in a moment.
It seems to me that there are three kinds of advice: EXTERNAL, OSMOTIC and INNER. EXTERNAL ADVICE is the kind you know best, probably what makes up most of your heap. It’s often given to you, unsolicited, with a preamble like “You should do whatever it is…”. This unsolicited external advice is often not welcomed, as you probably dislike being told what to do. External advice that you ask for is always more welcome, although you need to admit that you need help and must find the courage to ask for it.
The best external advice can be given to you carefully, and with great subtlety, to encourage you to think and learn. Let me tell you what I mean with what my daughter calls the Chicken Little story. All you need for background is that Chicken Little, a folk tale character, got it wrong.
When I was a first-year graduate student, we were tasked with writing a research proposal. Most of you have had to write a research proposal yourself, so you know what I mean. You have to decide what research question to ask, and then identify the methods and techniques that will allow you to get meaningful answers.
My proposal was to isolate a kind of DNA called ‘middle repetitive’ from chicken cells. DNA, as you know makes up the code of genetic material, and middle repetitive DNA is a stretch of code found multiple times in the DNA of each cell. The function of this middle repetitive DNA was unknown at the time, and unbeknownst to me, many scientists considered it to be ‘junk’, unimportant.
I worked hard on the proposal, and it was returned with the grade of B+. I was quite pleased, until I read the comment from the professor who wrote: “You’ve convinced me that you could isolate chicken middle repetitive DNA, but I have no idea why you would want to”.
Wow. There was insight there, and much advice, very gently delivered. I took my paper, in hard copy in those days and sat on the steps of the Biology building in the sun, contemplating. I had not considered that there should be a compelling reason to make a research project worth doing, but it made so much sense.
The gentleness of that advice had its impact through my own interpretation, and it has stayed with me always. I ask the question all the time and have taught generations of students to ask – what is worth studying, and why? Is this a Chicken Little question or something more important?
Here’s another category of advice that I’ve called OSMOTIC ADVICE. Like the chemical process, Osmotic advice flows from some high level in one place to some low level in you, with the general idea: ‘I see and decide to do’. You can find great advice from observing your fellow humans, from reading books, even on Netflix.
I’ve received a lot of osmotic advice myself, one life-changing piece long ago as a high school student. Mrs von Maltitz was my science teacher, 10,000 miles away in South Africa. Her husband was tragically killed by a drunk driver, leaving her with an infant son, and she did the very unusual for that time. As a single parent, she raised her son, while also being a brilliant teacher, and a farmer, producing ducklings from her lab coat pocket and running our Science club.
By osmosis, from Mrs von Maltitz, I learned that a woman in science can keep going even through difficult times, and still find strength and energy to communicate the wonder of science. I’ve kept this advice close to me, as a woman in science myself. Some years ago, I got to thank Mrs von Maltitz. She had no idea that she had given any advice at all.
And indeed, osmotic advice can be gentle or a jolt of realization – how to act, how not to act, how to decide where you might put your talent and time.
And then finally, there is INNER ADVICE – that comes from deep within you to reassure that ‘I can decide on a good course forward’. Inner advice may be the last category to appear in someone’s life because you need awareness of what works for you. But I bet you are there. I often ask myself, even as Dean, ‘what is comfortable?’ as a way of deciding between options.
When I considered moving to Northeastern University in 2020, I looked to my inner advice. I had a good job at the time, and needed to decide whether I should move from where I was settled to a university that was bold and innovative? I followed my inner advice and chose wonderful, bold and innovative Northeastern! I’m so glad I did, and I’m so glad you did! Your valuable Northeastern education and training will continue to open doors of opportunities throughout your career. Well done!
Now that we’ve framed the three kinds of advice, External, Osmotic and Inner, reinvigorated Chicken Little, and I’ve told you how the best advice can come gently and unexpectedly, you might take a moment to neaten up what you’ve heaped there. You might put what advice you value back in your pockets, and perhaps make room for some osmotic or inner advice. You’re welcome to leave the rest where it is. Someone else might want it, or we will put it in the recycle.
The only advice I’ll add to your heap today, is to remember that all types of advice are a gift. You can use the gift, discard it or regift it, whatever you choose. I’ve found a useful question is to ask whether the advice helps you find a reasonable path forward.
Your own path should always be respectful, ethical and legal, and allow you to move through your life and your career in ways you find interesting and useful. I am quite confident that each of you will find a pathway through life that makes great use of your talent and your time, and that draws upon the Good Power of Science you’ve experienced in our College.
As I started, let me conclude with warmest congratulations to each of you graduating.
You are all Science Huskies now, and forever. You, your families, and supporters always will be part of the Northeastern University College of Science.
Congratulations Science Huskies!