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Q&A with President Hockfield
What the BCS complex means for MIT

The first life scientist to lead MIT, President Susan Hockfield has studied brain development and the brain cancer glioma and is a professor of neuroscience in the BCS department. She spoke with TR assistant editor Katherine Bourzac about the promise of the BCS complex and the history of collaboration at MIT.

TR: You often say that one of your goals as president is to encourage interdisciplinary work. How does this apply to the BCS complex?

Susan Hockfield: The boundaries between previously established disciplines are growing fuzzy or disappearing. Scientists in the BCS complex would have been located in separate departments 10 or 20 years ago – a department of psychology, cell biology, physics, perhaps a nuclear science and engineering department. I am very interested in helping people talk across what might formerly have been disciplinary divides. Particularly promising is the area at the convergence of the life sciences and engineering – I think it’s going to be one of the most exciting domains of the coming decades.

TR: What does this new complex mean for the life sciences at MIT, and how does it fit into MIT’s history?

SH: The biologists of the world have long been looking at MIT as a leader in the biological sciences, particularly as the molecular-biology revolution took place, because many of the seminal discoveries were made here at MIT.

I often think about what happened at MIT when President Karl Compton in the 1930s and ’40s insisted that absolutely first-rate activities in the physical sciences needed to be in conversation with engineering. It was possible for him to insist on that because studies in the physical sciences at the beginning of the 20th century brought forward an understanding of the nuts and bolts of the physical universe that could be applied to problems that were going on in the engineering disciplines.

Similarly, studies in the life sciences and biological sciences in the early 1950s and ’60s allowed us to understand life systems at the level of nuts and bolts, and that is now in easy conversation with engineering disciplines. So we see a convergence between the life sciences and engineering that in important ways parallels the convergence between the physical sciences and engineering in the 20th century, which of course produced what we know of as the computer-science revolution. I anticipate that the convergence of the life sciences and engineering will have equally revolutionary results.


The BCS Complex at a Glance

The facility: Located between Main and Vassar Streets, the new Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex stretches over the railroad tracks dividing north and south campus. The facility includes offices, wet and dry labs, a 30-meter-high atrium, and an advanced imaging center. Take a virtual tour of part of the complex at http://web.mit.edu/mcgovern/html/Who_We_Are/building.shtml.

The architects: Lead designer Charles Correa, MAR ‘55, collaborated with the firm Goody, Clancy, and Associates, which designed the labs and research spaces.

The price tag: The $175 million facility was funded in part by portions of two exceptional gifts: the 2002 Picower Foundation donation of $50 million (the largest ever made to MIT from a private foundation) and the gift of $350 million from Lore and Pat McGovern ‘59 in 2000 to establish the McGovern Institute (the largest donation of any kind in MIT’s history).

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