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MIT Chooses Neurobiologist Susan Hockfield as President

Currently provost at Yale, Hockfield will be the first woman and the first biologist to head the Institute.
August 26, 2004

MIT has chosen Susan Hockfield, a neurobiologist who is currently provost at Yale University, to serve as its sixteenth president. Hockfield will succeed Charles M. Vest, who has led MIT for the past 14 years. She is expected to take office in early December, and will be the first woman and first life scientist to hold the post.

Professor Hockfield has made significant scientific contributions in her career, and she is highly appreciative of the creative blending of basic and applied research to address some of the most important problems of our time, said MIT Institute Professor Jerome Friedman, who chaired the faculty advisory committee during the nine-month-long presidential search.

As a scientist, I have always regarded MIT as a beacon, projecting an incredibly bright light that has illuminated the path of discovery and innovation for the entire world, Hockfield said in a press conference following her election by the MIT Corporation on August 26. My overarching goal is to help MIT to be an even greater MIT.

Hockfield said that part of this goal will be met by ensuring that anyone who has the extraordinary talent and ambition to make the most of MIT has to offer has a fair chance to join this community. Also, Ill do everything I can to maintain MITs leadership in setting the agenda for national policy in research and education, as well as build bridges with academic centers in other nations.

As the provost of Yale, 53-year-old Hockfield is the chief academic and administrative officer beneath the president. In this role, Hockfield expanded Yales initiatives in science, medicine, and engineering, including a $500 million investment in new and renovated facilities for the sciences.

Prior to becoming provost in 2003, Hockfield was the dean of Yales Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for almost five years. Under her tenure, Yale increased aid and benefits for graduate students, and established an Office for Diversity and Equal Opportunity to lead an effort to recruit and retain students who are members of underrepresented minority groups. One of the things I worked on quite a bit at Yale was building a real community for graduate students, said Hockfield. I will be looking for opportunities to really develop those learning communities more strongly than they currently exist at MIT.

In addition to her administrative positions, Hockfield has been on Yales faculty as a professor of neurobiology since 1985. Her research has focused on the development of the mammalian brain, and particularly on why a malignant and quick-spreading kind of brain tumor called glioma is so deadly. Hockfield, who received a bachelors degree in biology from the University of Rochester in 1973 and a PhD in anatomy and neuroscience from the Georgetown University School of Medicine in 1979, also served for five years as a researcher at the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory under James D. Watson, one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA. She will be the first life scientist to serve as MIT president.

Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa, an MIT biology professor who served on the faculty advisor committee for the presidential search, says that Hockfield has achieved international fame as a neuroscientist. On a personal level, she has an uncanny knack of making people feel at ease and is a great and thoughtful listener. She is a charismatic figure who we will be proud to have represent MIT on the national and international stages, says Tonegawa. He adds that Hockfield’s appointment will “accelerate the demise of the gender barrier in science and engineering.

Under President Vest, MIT turned its attention to gender bias at the Institute. Vest made public a 1999 report on the status of women faculty in the School of Science that revealed widespread discrimination, and launched a systemic effort to eliminate bias. However, Dana G. Mead, Chairman of the MIT Corporation, stresses that the selection was, as much as possible, gender blind we selected the best person for this job, for MIT, going forward. Incidentally happens to be a very distinguished scientist, and a woman.

When asked whether the choice of a life scientist represented a shift in focus at MIT, Mead said, Theres already a shift underway. This is the first year I believe in the history of MIT that research dollars from the National Institutes of Health equal or exceed research dollars from the Department of Defense. Were pursuing the frontiers of science at the same time that our engineering departments are pursuing the frontiers in which they work. One of Susans challenges will be to bring those two strengths together.

A student advisory committee was formed to give the search committee their perspective on important qualities in a president. Mead said that this group will also work with Hockfield as she becomes acquainted with student life. “This is the season of going back to school, and its time for me to do the same, Hockfield said. Im looking forward to learning from the students, faculty, staff, and alumni who will be my teachers in the weeks and months ahead.

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