‘We have a remarkable community here’

Susan Hockfield, the new dean of the Graduate School, talks about the collegial and interdisciplinary nature of Yale, the direction of teaching and scholarship in a changing world, and her own research as a neurobiologist.

A year after leaving Georgetown with a Ph.D. in anatomy, Susan Hockfield experienced a moment that would delight any young scientist. She interviewed at a prestigious research institute and impressed its Nobel Prize-winning director well enough to land a job as a staff investigator. The year was 1980, the institute was the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and the director wasn’t just any Nobel Prize winner, but James D. Watson, Ph.D., who discovered the structure of DNA in 1953 along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins.

Hockfield spent five years at Cold Spring Harbor pursuing research in the biology of the nervous system before joining Yale’s neurobiology faculty in 1985. Last July 1, she became the 17th dean of the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She is the first Graduate School dean to come from the medical school faculty, and her appointment is emblematic of a growing connection between Cedar Street and the central campus. At the School of Medicine, doctoral students in neurobiology, genetics, cell biology, physiology, pharmacology, pathology, immunobiology and microbial pathogenesis receive their degrees from the Graduate School, which recently created a program in the biological and biomedical sciences to enhance recruiting of students and better coordinate training and scholarship.

Hockfield, 47, was director of graduate studies for her department between 1986 and 1994 and remains engaged in research. Her recent work has delved into the molecular mechanisms that allow brain tumors known as gliomas to spread through the brain, making effective treatment exceedingly difficult, and often impossible. Last spring she and colleagues published findings in The Journal of Neuroscience that suggested for the first time how one molecule may facilitate the unimpeded movement of glioma cells throughout the brain.

As dean, Hockfield oversees a community of 2,300 students and 760 faculty members, taking the reins at a time of intense discussion about graduate education. She manages 65 Yale departments and programs, oversees faculty appointments and promotions in the natural and social sciences, and spends one day a week in her own laboratory on the fourth floor of Sterling Hall of Medicine. She spoke to Yale Medicine’s editor, Michael Fitzsousa, for this article in late February.

You became dean of the Graduate School last July, after more than a dozen years as a medical school faculty member in neurobiology. What did you find when you arrived in the new job?

I had been closely involved with the Graduate School for eight years when I was director of graduate studies, then not quite so closely from 1994 until last spring. I was delighted to see that it had undergone a substantial transformation. Until just a few years ago, the school’s functions were almost purely administrative. Under [previous dean] Tom Appelquist, a number of programmatic initiatives were begun, and when I took office three new programs were already in place. One was the McDougal Center, which serves as a place for students to gather for academic and non-academic affairs. The second was the Office of Teaching Fellow Preparation and Development. We also have a new Office of Graduate Career Services, which had been in existence less than a year when I took over. These initiatives really mark a change in how the Graduate School provides service to the graduate students and our faculty.

What are the overriding issues in graduate education today, both here and outside of Yale?

The career paths that our graduates follow today are more diverse than they have ever been. I see this as a wonderful opportunity, but it also challenges the way in which we think about graduate education. In all fields, it’s no longer the case that someone with a Ph.D., even from Yale, will necessarily become a professor at an institution of higher learning. Because of this, we need to re-examine our programs continually to make sure that we are equipping our students optimally for the work they will do.

What has been responsible for this broadening of career interest outside of academia?

In the life sciences, there has been an explosion in interest, and an explosion of possibility, in what science can actually do. We’ve seen a lot of growth in biotech and the pharmaceutical industry, and it’s wonderful that our Ph.D.s are participating in that new direction. In the humanities and social sciences, university expansions in the 1960s and early ’70s produced more opportunities for Ph.D.s in the academy than today. What is increasingly appreciated, however, is that the skills our students develop en route to a Ph.D. are in high demand elsewhere.

To get a Ph.D., a student has to have learned the skills of focused creativity—not just being creative, but putting that creativity to a purpose. It requires high levels of critical analysis and the ability to communicate extremely well. The scholarship component of the Ph.D. involves compiling huge amounts of data that no one before has put into any kind of order. And the challenge of the doctoral student is to organize that data so that it tells a story that makes sense and answers questions that have not been answered before. In an age when the economy is increasingly information-based—when we are simply awash in data—people with these skills are invaluable in the interpretation of information and the communication of that new knowledge to other parts of the society.

Several years ago, Yale created the Combined Program in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences, or BBS, to streamline its programs and enhance the recruitment of top students. What has been the impact of this?

The effect has been enormous. The idea wasn’t so much to streamline programs, but to provide an umbrella organization for research and education. The revolutions in molecular biology and other technologies have broken down the walls between departments and disciplines in the life sciences, and students increasingly want to avail themselves of all of the information that is out there. They also want the opportunity to work with faculty who may be in different departments. So the BBS was an obvious solution to the needs of graduate education.

What exactly did it do? What was the new structure that it brought in?

A student who is interested in pursuing graduate education in the biological or biomedical sciences now enters one program. There are different tracks, so the student will identify the area of greatest interest—neuroscience, for example, or genetics and development. But even after entering in a track, the student can still move from one track to another, so there is flexibility. The BBS permits graduate students to fully participate in an extremely rich educational enterprise that involves all the biological and biomedical scientists at Yale. In addition to serving the graduate students well, it has had the secondary consequence of bringing together faculty, who are very collegial and collaborative to begin with. The BBS provides yet another way for them to interact. Applications to this program are up about 20 percent over last year.

What is your view of the efforts at Yale and other universities to unionize graduate students who serve as teaching assistants?

This is a national effort fueled by unions interested in increasing their support base, both in health care and education. We here at Yale feel very strongly that a labor relationship is not the relationship best suited to the education of our graduate students.

Since becoming dean, you’ve announced several initiatives to improve graduate student life in general. What has been done?

We want to recruit the very best graduate students to Yale, and we want to be sure that Yale can make competitive offers. Last summer we improved health coverage for students. Another change we made was in the structure of our stipends. In many departments, the stipend that a student was offered upon entering remained the stipend for that student throughout four years. What that meant was that each year’s entering class had a higher stipend than the class that entered the year before. Now all students receive at least the same base stipend, which is at a higher level than we’ve offered before.

Building a sense of community in the Graduate School is very important. We began a number of programs last fall to that end, starting with one called Take a Faculty Member to Lunch. Then we added Take a Student to Lunch. We provide a free lunch when a student brings a faculty member (or vice versa) to eat at the Hall of Graduate Studies dining hall. That has turned into a successful program. We now call it FEAST, for Free Eating Attracts Students and Teachers.

We also initiated a series of multidisciplinary lectures, called In the Company of Scholars. At least once a month we have a lecture from one of our faculty members, with a format that is designed to be accessible to graduate students and faculty throughout the University. Jonathan Spence, Sterling Professor of History, gave the first lecture. There were people in the audience from physics, math, psychology and the medical school, because in our community there is a tremendous desire to learn.

We really are, as George Pierson said, a company of scholars. We are interested in learning, and in learning from one another. This is the tradition of Yale, which is fostered by our commitment to teaching. It requires us always to be learning and creates an environment where curiosity can dominate over competition.

One of the first things I did when I became dean was to start an e-mail list so that I can communicate with all the graduate students. And I do so with some regularity. Hopefully not so much as to be a pest, but enough so that students feel that they know what’s going on in the graduate school. We also initiated a monthly newsletter that highlights activities throughout the University and the town that are of particular interest to graduate students.

Since the 1970s, you have pursued research in the nervous system and its molecular underpinnings. What questions are you trying to answer?

As the brain develops, there are some intriguing processes that occur. There’s a time in brain development, called the critical period, when the connections between nerve cells are refined based on how those nerve cells are actually working. The period of plasticity when those connections can be rearranged is circumscribed, and, for reasons that are very poorly understood, a plastic brain becomes nonplastic at a particular stage in development, after which the connections are much harder to modify.

One of the main questions in my lab has been, What are the molecular substrates that change the plastic brain to a nonplastic brain? We’ve identified a family of proteins in the extracellular matrix, the space around the cells, that are first expressed at the end of these periods of plasticity and appear to play a role in their closure. In looking at the brain as it changes during this process, we identified a protein expressed early in development that, we think, facilitates the movement of glial cells. We also discovered that this protein is re-expressed at very high levels in brain tumors. One of the hallmarks of primary brain tumors is that the tumor cells can move around the brain with great facility, and that’s the reason why these tumors are so fatal. We’re now working to understand how this particular protein increases the motility of glioma cells, with the idea that if we could somehow stop tumor cells from moving around, we might be able to reduce the lethality of these devastating tumors.

Did you ever imagine such a practical application for your research when you began working in that area?

No, I didn’t. And I think this is really one of the great wonders of biological science today. The tools are so powerful; they allow you to look into basic biological processes and search relatively quickly for possible relevance in clinical processes.

Are you still active in the lab?

I set aside Fridays to work there. I have a strong and mature group of graduate students, post-docs and research technicians, and they are continuing their work on our projects. They know that they can talk to me at any time, and we e-mail back and forth and talk on the phone.

What excites you most in the field, both in your area of research and other areas of neurobiology?

In 1980, when I first started my own lab at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, there weren’t many people who seriously considered that there would be a clinical application of the work we did. We were all pretty much resigned—and perfectly happy—to be carrying on with something that was very basic science. I remember suggesting in conversation that the things I was studying then might not be relevant clinically for another 20 years, and that’s not the case for work being undertaken today. The number of rational therapies that are available now in neurology and the number of diagnostic tools that we have compared to where we were 20 years ago are really quite fantastic. We can discover things that we never imagined being able to approach.

When I received my Ph.D. in 1979, there was a criticism that there wasn’t any biology in neurobiology. And by and large it was true—the things that people studied in neurobiology were pretty much divorced from the rest of biology. Since 1980, that has changed dramatically. The techniques of molecular biology that were in their infancy in the 1970s have become extremely sophisticated and now allow us to look at multicellular organisms, complex tissues, and to make very precise evaluations of what’s happening over different periods of time. There are so many things that I learned as facts in graduate school that have proved to be wrong in the last 20 years. It’s a remarkable privilege to be working in a field where the pace of discovery is breathtaking.

Tell us about your life outside of Yale. What do you do when you’re not at work?

My husband, Thomas Byrne, is a clinical neurologist. We have a seven-year-old daughter. Our lives are an interwoven mixture of Yale and non-Yale. My husband’s interest in neuroscience and neurobiology is an important piece of our lives. His subspecialty is neuro-oncology, and it was our conversations about glioma that led to my last discovery of a protein expressed in glioma. It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been talking to a clinician during the course of the experiments.

Otherwise, our life revolves around the life of a seven-year-old. These are pretty demanding things we’ve taken on. I play tennis, my husband swims, my daughter does ballet. They join me every Thursday night for dinner in the Hall of Graduate Studies dining room. My daughter spends time here in my office sometimes, and with my husband in his office. So we see these activities as family activities and not isolated from our lives.

What is the environment for women now in graduate education?

I can address it best from my experience in the biological sciences, where I have enjoyed a richly interesting career. There are many kinds of job opportunities that afford increasing levels of flexibility for women. There are a lot of women scientists today. That was not the case when I started out, although I have to say it never deterred me. I just entered a field at a time when the opportunities were beginning.

With a distinguished research career, you could have continued on that path without taking on a challenge such as administering the Graduate School. Why were you interested in doing so?

I’m absolutely committed to graduate education. I think it’s enormously important. I think that excellence in higher education in the United States is what has driven the United States’ leadership both in economics and in intellectual property. We have seen remarkable growth in many areas, and I think that graduate education has played an important role in that. Being able to serve Yale and help guide graduate education is a wonderful opportunity.

I also feel it was a privilege to be able to get a Ph.D. and enter into this company of scholars, this intellectual life of the mind. I think it’s important that people who believe in it strongly support it.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned so far as a dean?

Well, I’ve learned a heartening lesson. When you run a lab, it’s a small-scale organizational challenge in that you have some scientific problems that you want toaddress and you have to get people to think together about those problems and their potential solutions.

I honestly didn’t know how that kind of close cooperation would translate to the larger scale of the Graduate School. I found out that it does. The most gratifying experience I’ve had as dean is seeing how willing people are to put their efforts to the cause of making graduate education better at Yale. Nothing has given me greater pleasure than seeing students, faculty, administrators all come together to work toward the good. We have a remarkable community here.

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