The October sky has darkened by the time Susan Hockfield leaves New Haven, CT. It’s about 8:00 p.m. She’ll be in Cambridge in three hours. Hockfield has traveled this road every week since late summer, when she began a journey that will take her to a stately office overlooking Killian Court on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The days since she was named MIT’s 16th president have blurred into weeks, then months. As she drives, she runs through a mental list of responsibilities she must attend to before December, when she officially assumes her new role. There are the details of leaving her post as provost of Yale University, whose campus she’s called home for nearly 20 years. There is the matter of packing up her household and preparing to move with her husband, Thomas Byrne, their 13-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and Casey, their golden retriever. On the MIT campus, meanwhile, faculty, staff, and students anxiously await the arrival of their new president.
As the distance shortens between her past and future, Hockfield’s mind is racing. A year ago, hers was one name on a list of nearly 100 people who had been nominated for the presidency. In less than three months, she will become the first woman—and the first life scientist—to lead MIT. Occasions like this, friends and colleagues say, are when she is at her best. The 53-year-old neuroscientist-turned-administrator doesn’t just love challenges; she seeks them out. Good thing, because she’ll have plenty as she settles into her new position. A slumping economy led to a 17 percent drop in the Institute’s endowment between 2000 and 2002—though it has since rebounded—and $70 million in budgetary cutbacks for the current fiscal year. Competition among the nation’s leading research universities for the brightest undergraduate and graduate students is growing more fierce. Visa restrictions have added spools of red tape to international collaborations, and the number of Americans choosing careers in science and engineering is declining.
Still, there is little doubt in Hockfield’s mind that this is a wonderful opportunity. So here she is, making her way to Cambridge, wondering about the future and recalling what brought her to its cusp.
A scientific explorer
Hockfield has never had a nine-to-five job. As a scientist and an administrator, she has always set her office hours according to the tasks that lay in front of her. Those close to her say that she is demanding of herself, and that she is the type of person who knows what she wants and works hard to get it. Byrne says that Hockfield is clear, incisive, poised, and a critical thinker. The pair met in 1986 on a blind date and were married a few years later, says Byrne, a clinical neurologist who teaches at Yale.
Not surprisingly, family conversation often turns to science. In fact, Hockfield credits much of her success in research to Byrne, whose insight as a clinician has helped her to look at neurological questions from a different vantage point, one that a microscope could not afford. Since shortly after she finished her doctoral studies, Hockfield has been investigating the early development of the brain and the central nervous system. She launched her first laboratory as a scientist in 1980 at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, where she had been hand selected for the research staff by James Watson, who received a Nobel Prize with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkin for discovering the structure of DNA. In 1985 she joined the faculty at Yale as an assistant professor of neurobiology.
As a scientist, she was most interested in the structures involved in early brain development, when many synapses become fixed in place. While trying to determine how, exactly, that fixation happens, Hockfield became one of the first scientists to use molecules called monoclonal antibodies to study the brain. She followed the antibodies’ movement with an electron microscope, and her observations led to the discovery of a family of proteins involved in these crucial stages of mammalian growth. More recently, her lab has focused on gliomas, highly invasive brain tumors that are almost always fatal. Gliomas pose unanswered biological questions—thus presenting the type of challenge Hockfield has always sought. And a challenge brings out Hockfield’s talent for leadership. When running an investigation in the lab, she seeks input from those around her, asks as many questions of the data as possible, and then attacks the biological problem in front of her with passion, intensity, and a curiosity about living things that hooked her on science at the age of five.
The product of a “Sputnik education,” Hockfield grew up during a period of scientific exploration that inspired classrooms full of budding scientists. By her senior year at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, NY, she knew her professional future would involve science. At the time, the field was dominated by men. Indeed, most of her science teachers in junior high and high school had been men, and she had a similar experience when she entered the University of Rochester to study biology. Her parents always encouraged her three sisters and her to pursue their interests; that Hockfield was interested in a career that had attracted few women didn’t seem to matter. “I didn’t feel that worlds were not open to me because I was a woman,” she says. What counted, she says, was her love of science. “I had good teachers, and it was exciting to have classes where I could study what I was interested in. I just loved the stuff.”
Decades later, as she set out to create her own lab, she shared her enthusiasm for the field with those around her. In science, real breakthroughs are rare. Though Hockfield has certainly enjoyed a few during her career, what former students recall most is how she celebrated them with everyone around her. Rick Matthews, an assistant professor at Yale who did his graduate work under Hockfield, remembers excited phone calls when someone completed a particularly rigorous experiment. Senior lab technician Gail Kelly recalls high fives.
“Every day can be very slow and methodical, and you don’t have too many eureka moments,” says Lori Redmond, an assistant professor at the Medical College of Georgia who did her doctoral work with Hockfield from 1990 to 1996. “I think Sue realized the importance of those moments and made sure the whole lab shared in the joy.”
Hockfield radiates confidence and calm, yet she has an intensity that her colleagues say allows her to focus on details while keeping sight of the bigger picture. Her combination of level-headedness and passion served her well as a scientist, and in 1998, it began to guide her work as an administrator. That year, Hockfield was asked to take on the deanship of the graduate school at Yale, which consisted of more than 2,000 graduate students in about 70 different programs of study. She accepted the post but, not quite ready to give up her science, arranged to spend each Friday in the lab. She turned the day-to-day management over to Matthews, whose own research was closely allied with hers.
A hallmark of Hockfield’s deanship was her ability to listen to others, says Richard Sleight, an associate dean of the graduate school who worked with Hockfield. Another was her decisiveness. “She sets a very clear course when you work with her,” Sleight says. “She says, ‘These are the problems; let’s talk about the solutions.’ Then she identifies the solutions she wants to act on, then moves to act. Her style is to take action and move fast.”
Having mentored graduate students, Hockfield knew that improving graduate student pay and benefits, expanding services, and strengthening the student community would be top priorities during her deanship. Before she had time to set these plans into motion, she was faced with a card-signing drive by a group of Yale graduate students trying to unionize the graduate student body. The effort had been going on for years, but things began to heat up during Hockfield’s first month on the job. Proponents were vocal and, at times, hostile. The university administration, which claimed that unionization actually would leave graduate students worse off, staunchly opposed the move. Hockfield agreed with Yale and tried to make her case before pro-union activists at town hall-style meetings, only to be shouted down. It was a painful time for everyone, but the new dean was at the center of the storm.
“She didn’t like the personal attacks, but she always took the attitude that the graduate school had to be above that,” Sleight says. “We weren’t going to go in a rebuttal mode if they attacked us.”
Hockfield doesn’t like to speak of the hostility, but it’s clear that the experience was unsettling. “There are many different points of view on any issue, and some will be expressed more loudly than others, some more articulately than others,” Hockfield says. “I think that one of the important, really key values of a university community is making sure that different points of view can be expressed and be heard and brought to bear on any particular issue.”
The union movement failed, even as Hockfield moved forward with plans to address many of the issues it had raised. Known around campus as a community builder, Hockfield became a highly visible dean after the unionization effort. She spent evenings and early mornings going through e-mail and office correspondence, leaving her days free for meetings with students and faculty. And on Thursdays, her husband and daughter joined her for dinner in the graduate dining hall.
“She put a face on the graduate school,” Sleight says. “She was the graduate school.”
By the time Hockfield left the dean’s office, all doctoral students had free health care and had received pay raises. Hockfield also developed a number of symposia and professional-development programs designed to help graduate students take the next steps in their careers. Her achievements earned her the respect of Yale president Rick Levin, who in December 2002 tapped her to be the university’s new provost. At Yale, the provost is responsible for the administrative operation of the campus—including the budget—as well as oversight of the academic side. Once again, Hockfield attacked this new challenge with enthusiasm and a great interest in learning. She assembled those on campus who knew the administrative workings of the institution best and peppered them with questions. And once again, she faced controversy shortly after she took office.
In March 2003, about 4,000 Yale union employees went on strike. National news reporters converged on New Haven. Jesse Jackson came to speak at a protest rally. The strike ended without a settlement, and five months later, just as the new freshmen and their parents arrived to move into campus dorms, the union members went on strike again. Employees, who were calling for better wages and pension plans, had been working without a contract since January 2002. After lengthy negotiations, the university and the union finally agreed on a new contract, ending the strike in September.
By that time, Hockfield was dealing with a new challenge: a $30 million budget deficit. She helped to recruit John Pepper, a Yale graduate who at the time was a board member of the Yale Corporation, to take on the post of vice president for finance and administration. Working with a team of administrators and faculty, Hockfield and Pepper devised a plan to cut spending and reduce the deficit. The plan contained many innovative measures, but the university also eliminated more than 200 jobs. Although most of these were vacated through attrition and retirement, about 80 people were laid off in the spring of 2004.
Hockfield will undoubtedly face similar budget problems as president of MIT, given the Institute’s recent financial woes. “When budget ups and downs are driven by macroeconomic conditions,” Hockfield says, “the important thing is for people to maintain their confidence in the institution, the students, faculty, staff, the alumni, and believe that the institution is strong. We are concerned about models that show budget deficits at Yale, MIT, and our peers, but foundationally, these institutions are very strong financially and have resources that are the envy of the world.”
When news of Hockfield’s appointment broke, it immediately gained national attention. She would be the first life scientist to lead MIT. She would also, of course, be the first woman.
“Ten years ago, I think I probably would have said that there would be a woman president of the United States before they hired a woman to be president of MIT,” says Nancy Hopkins, a professor of biology at MIT and one of the leaders of a long-standing effort to improve gender equity at the Institute. In 1999, Hopkins and several other women faculty met with former president Charles M. Vest HM to discuss the findings of a study they conducted on the standing of female scientists at the Institute. The data revealed gross inequities in salaries, lab space, and other resources. Vest publicly acknowledged the problem and supported a number of initiatives designed to achieve parity in hiring, promotion, and tenure.
Now, just five years later, MIT has hired its first female president. “Just think of our mindset 10 years ago, when we started this study,” Hopkins says. “Then, if a woman was going to have a child, she had to hide the fact that she was pregnant. We’ve come quite a long way.”
Hopkins knew Hockfield by her reputation as a scientist and met her in September, when Hockfield was formally introduced to the campus community. “This introduction of her stood out as an extraordinary event. This woman walked into the room of some 400 people, and there was an instant rapport between her and that group of people,” Hopkins recalls. “Something in her ability to do that is probably part of the reason they chose her.”
Indeed, when Hockfield met with MIT’s presidential search committee for the first time, its members felt an immediate connection with her. When the group began the search process, whittling the number of candidates from about 100 to 25 and finally to the dozen who were interviewed, it was guided by a list of characteristics that faculty, students, staff, and alumni had determined to be indispensable in MIT’s next president. The faculty wanted a researcher, someone who understood what it takes to do good science and teach students. The students wanted someone with an open-door policy. The staff wanted someone who knew that a strong administrative staff is vital to a strong teaching and research effort. And the alumni wanted someone who understood what it meant to be a part of MIT, someone with a real sensitivity to what makes MIT special.
“Most important was that the next president share what we considered to be MIT’s principal values: openness, meritocracy, excellence,” says James Champy ‘63, SM ‘65, a member of the MIT Corporation and the leader of the search committee that selected Hockfield. “We were looking for someone who was on a constant search for the truth. That might sound too high-minded, but that’s who we wanted. And Sue had all those qualities.”
But what of her limited experience as an administrator? Some at Yale call Hockfield’s rise to leadership “meteoric.” In just six years, she has gone from being a researcher to being named president of MIT.
“I think we will have some of the very best years in Dr. Hockfield’s career,” Champy says. “I think there’s enough experience, more than enough energy, and a strong likelihood for new points of view to solve the challenges we have. I will trade that any day for 20 years in experience.”
When she received the news that she had been unanimously selected to be the next MIT president, Hockfield was elated. She celebrated the announcement with her family, including her mother, Fayetta Hockfield, who still lives in Chappaqua, where Hockfield grew up. Soon after, Hockfield and her daughter, Elizabeth, found themselves walking around Cambridge, talking about what lay ahead. They also explored Boston, strolling along Newbury Street and making plans for their upcoming move. Elizabeth and her mother often take walks together, usually in the company of their dog, Casey. Elizabeth is indeed proud of her mother’s accomplishments. But while she understands the magnitude of what has just happened, her mother, to her, is still “just Mom,” a person who loves jigsaw puzzles, family vacations in Italy, and the movie Chariots of Fire, the mother who will still make time to help her with her homework.
“She has very strong feelings about American higher education,” says Byrne, who plans to continue his practice as a clinical neurologist in Cambridge and hopes to teach at MIT. “Education is not a luxury. It’s a necessity for a civil society and for the kinds of freedoms we enjoy. Sue believes very strongly in these values.”
During her first few months on campus, Hockfield plans to direct much of her energy toward meeting members of the MIT community and identifying the issues on the minds of faculty, staff, and students. The budget will, of course, be one of them. Improving the diversity of the graduate student body and faculty is likely to be another. Charles Vest once said that the presidency of MIT comes with a bully pulpit. Hockfield plans to use that pulpit to address the need for better science education in grade school, which she believes could increase the number of Americans in science and engineering.
Remarkably, Hockfield kept a hand in research during her two years as provost at Yale. Her lab time was limited, of course, but she was still involved in writing manuscripts and mentoring young scientists. Now, however, she is leaving lab work behind. The postdocs and students in her laboratory at Yale will continue their work as members of Matthews’s research team.
Saying goodbye to that part of her life is not difficult, says Hockfield, who professes a passion for academic administration that equals her passion for scientific discovery. It’s a different kind of exploration, she says, but exploration nonetheless.
It’s impossible for Hockfield to say just how she will face the challenges that await her. She says she’s learned much about herself as she’s traveled down the road that brought her from New Haven to Cambridge. But the real journey, she adds, is just beginning.
This artist is dominating AI-generated art. And he’s not happy about it.
Greg Rutkowski is a more popular prompt than Picasso.
VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence
On key metrics, a VR experience elicited a response indistinguishable from subjects who took medium doses of LSD or magic mushrooms.
This nanoparticle could be the key to a universal covid vaccine
Ending the covid pandemic might well require a vaccine that protects against any new strains. Researchers may have found a strategy that will work.
How do strong muscles keep your brain healthy?
There’s a robust molecular language being spoken between your muscles and your brain.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.