When she embarked on her career as a neurobiologist in the early 1980s, Yale Provost Susan Hockfield, Ph.D., never imagined that her academic path would take her from running a laboratory to running a university. She devoted herself to research, devising novel uses of monoclonal antibody technology and discovering a gene that may play a role in brain cancer. “Being a scientist is a wonderful, wonderful career,” she said in September in her office on Hillhouse Avenue. “I had no aspirations to move into positions of academic leadership.”
But early on her administrative skills emerged. After she came to Yale in 1985, she ran a summer program in neurobiology at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, where she had previously worked. At Yale, Hockfield, the William Edward Gilbert Professor of Neurobiology, served as director of graduate studies in the medical school’s Section of Neurobiology and on the graduate school’s executive committee. In 1998 she was named dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (the first member of the medical school faculty appointed to that post), and in January 2003, she became provost when her predecessor, Alison Richard, Ph.D., was chosen to lead Cambridge University.
As provost she has worked to advance science, medicine and engineering at Yale—initiatives that include a $500 million investment in facilities. She has also fomented interdisciplinary collaborations throughout the university.
In August the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced that Hockfield would become its 16th president, the first woman and the first life scientist so named. She will move to Cambridge, Mass., with her husband, Thomas N. Byrne Jr., M.D., HS ’81, clinical professor of neurology, neurosurgery and medicine at the medical school, and their daughter, Elizabeth, 13, in December.
At MIT she replaces Charles M. Vest, Ph.D., who announced his retirement last year after 14 years leading the school. (In October, President Richard C. Levin appointed Deputy Provost Andrew D. Hamilton, Ph.D., to succeed Hockfield.)
“MIT is an inspiring place, populated by inspiring people,” Hockfield said. “From my first conversations in the search process, the Institute’s central themes—the pursuit of truth, integrity and the great meritocracy—have resonated with my own core values.”
Although MIT, with its strong reputation in engineering, has never before named a biological scientist as its leader, Hockfield said that the school’s grants and contracts supporting research in the life sciences, largely from the National Institutes of Health, have grown at a remarkable rate over the last decade. And the school is constructing a three-building complex devoted to neuroscience. With its strengths in engineering, the physical sciences and the biological sciences, she believes MIT is well-positioned for collaborative, interdisciplinary science. “I am hoping to do what I can to encourage bridge-building among these disciplines,” she said.
She also plans to continue the practice of past MIT presidents who have served as advocates for sound national policies on science, technology and higher education. (The school maintains an office in Washington, which she will visit once a month.) One of her main concerns is that American students are falling behind their peers around the world in math and science. She’d like to see improvement in math and science education from kindergarten through high school, to engage and inspire students. “Almost every child gets a thrill from building and inventing things that work,” she said. “Math and science in our schools can do a better job in tapping and encouraging that creative energy.”
For now, though, her attention is on MIT. “My overarching goal is to help MIT to be an even greater MIT,” she said. “I hope that MIT is increasingly seen as among the very best places in the world for people—faculty, staff and students—who are enormously inspired by innovation in both teaching and research.”