Spotlight: Susan Hockfield and the Magic of the Laboratory
Newsletter Article, Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Author: James F. Smith, Former Communications Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
While working toward a doctoral degree in anatomy at Georgetown University’s School of Medicine, Susan Hockfield plunged into professional life in a neurobiology lab at the National Institutes of Health, working on the riddle of how pain signals get from the skin to the brain.
A solitary scientific pursuit? "Hardly," says Hockfield. She remembers being part of a cross-cutting team of experts, including neurophysiologists, pharmacologists, psychologists, and medical doctors.
“I loved everything about working in the lab—the technology, the mental processes, the social dynamics,” Hockfield recalled. “But the thing I came to love most was the magic that on a good day would happen at a lab meeting, where a group of very intelligent people, all deeply versed in their area of study, would together puzzle over someone’s problem. And out of that collaborative thinking would emerge a solution that no one would have reached on his or her own.”
Hockfield is spending a sabbatical year at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center after an acclaimed stint as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
She didn’t imagine a career in university administration.
She was always fascinated by the science of living things; she got her first microscope in the fifth grade. After her doctoral research at NIH and a postdoctoral year at the University of California at San Francisco, she was hired by DNA pioneer James Watson to become an investigator at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (not far from Chappaqua, New York, where she went to high school). In 1985, she joined the faculty of Yale Medical School as a professor of neurobiology, and built a lab that conducted complex brain research, focusing in part on a deadly form of brain cancer.
She accepted a request to become dean of the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1998 because she felt she could help grad students have more effective educational experiences. She planned to stay only a couple of years.
“What I discovered was that in academic leadership, that magic of collaborative thinking is what the job is about—bringing people together to puzzle through problems, to over- come impediments,” said Hockfield.
She became provost of Yale, the chief academic and chief administrative officer, in 2002, and then moved to MIT in December 2004 as its first woman president, and the first life scientist to lead MIT.
Hockfield brought along her belief in the power of converging disciplines and cross-cutting expertise. In many ways it defined her leadership at MIT, just as it had at Yale.
Consider these initiatives under her leadership:
- The MIT Energy Initiative, or MITEI, deploys multidisciplinary research and education across the Institute, involving scientists, economists, architects, engineers, policy thinkers and urban planners, leading to hundreds of sustainable energy projects from solar to nanostructured materials.
- Hockfield co-chairs President Obama’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, which brings together government agencies, the academy and industry to chart a path toward high-end manufacturing, and the educational systems to sustain it at the boundary of policy and science.
- She pushed the frontier of education with edX, the effort to make interactive on-line education accessible and practical for students across the world. Hockfield and Harvard President Drew Faust jointly launched edX last year.
But Hockfield’s leadership in the convergence of life sciences and engineering—an outgrowth of her early lab days—may define her principal contribution to education and American competitiveness.
“The convergence of life sciences and engineering, I think, is going to be the story of the 21st century, much as the convergence of the physical sciences and engineering was the story of the 20th century,” she said in an interview.
During the early 20th century, “physicists decoded the fundamental elements of the physical universe. They were essentially understanding the parts list of the physical world— the structure of atoms, how electrons travel,” she said. Engineers seized this ‘parts list’, and began to experiment with how to make them useful.
By the 1950s, scientists, including James Watson were elucidating the structure of DNA, and “the biological sciences began to assemble a parts list for the biological universe. And engineers, in a very similar way, as they saw the ‘parts list’ evolving, picked up those parts and incorporated them into applications.”
The obvious applications are in biomedicine, booming all around the Boston area, including on the MIT campus in Kendall Square. “But the applications extend well beyond that. A group of biologically oriented MIT engineers have demonstrated that they can design viruses that make batteries and make solar cells, combining biological approaches with engineering approaches.”
At MIT, Hockfield put that transformation to work. She led initiatives including the Ragon Institute, which is working on an AIDS vaccine; the Broad Institute, which is using genomics and biological sciences to understand and treat disease; and the Koch Institute, which combines biological research with engineering technology to revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
Any one of those alone would be a worthy legacy. Playing a motivating role in all three earns, well, a sabbatical.
This year the Kennedy School and the Belfer Center gives the soft-spoken Hockfield some breathing space and more time to get to her beloved Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concerts. (She is a BSO overseer). “I am doing more listening than speaking,” she said. “The luxury for me to be able to stay at a seminar and hear a speaker for the entire hour is just sheer delight.”
So what will her focus be going forward? She’s not yet ready to choose. She does allow that “I am quite interested in academic leader- ship, and the challenges of developing effective leadership in the academy.”
And it’s no surprise that her vision of leadership combines individual excellence with collaboration and collegiality. “One of the important roles of an academic leader is to recognize common themes, and create conditions where people’s own ideas and ambitions can be advanced beyond what they could do on their own.
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