For graduate student Amy Braun, an experiment that revealed sex differences in a model of autism wasn’t initially a surprise – differences between male and female mice had been found in many other studies, and had been largely ignored.

A few years later, however, Braun challenged the assumptions that led her colleagues to disregard such findings, and that’s when things got interesting. She found there was something to learn about autism from studying what others had taken for granted. And, she said, the experience changed the kinds of questions she’s interested in asking. “It’s completely changed the way I look at everybody’s work, including my own,” she said.

While not every reexamined assumption will have such life-changing results or even lead to new insights, Braun is not alone in discovering something useful from questioning her field’s assumptions.

A second look at cells that make up 90 percent of the brain revealed new insights into neurological disease. A collaboration between epidemiologists and anthropologists helped doctors understand the spread of bird flu in China. And social scientists learned that contrarians, though annoying, can help strengthen team decisions. Across disciplines – and often by working across traditional academic boundaries – Stanford researchers have made big discoveries by taking a fresh perspective.