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Life Scientist Takes Helm at MIT

Biologist Susan Hockfield will tackle funding priorities, student concerns, and enrollment issues

3 min read

On 26 August, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, announced that Susan Hockfield, provost and former dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences at Yale University, New Haven, Conn., will be its next president. She succeeds Charles M. Vest [see photo, " Guard Changes"]. Though well received, the decision packed a couple of surprises: Hockfield, 53, will be the first woman to lead MIT, long a bastion of male-dominated engineering and physical science. She is also the first biologist to head the school.

"Clearly, the fact that I'm a life scientist is a shift," Hockfield commented in an interview with IEEE Spectrum, "but it really [reflects] an evolution of the life sciences into a position equal to MIT's more traditional strengths."

As a researcher, Hockfield primarily studied the development of the mammalian brain and anomalies in that process. She pioneered the use in brain research of monoclonal antibodies, exceptionally pure antibodies produced from cultured cells that have come to be widely applied in diagnostics, immunization, and research.

"Susan is not just an excellent administrator but a superb scholar and teacher in the life sciences. Her experience--along with her energy and enthusiasm--make Hockfield and MIT a superb match," says Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania.

A graduate of the University of Rochester, New York, and the Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, D.C., Hockfield worked for five years at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York state under James D. Watson, the DNA codiscoverer, before joining the Yale faculty.

Recognizing that running MIT will be a full-time job, Hockfield acknowledges she won't be doing any of her own research or teaching after moving to Cambridge in December to take office. "But," she says, "there's so much fabulous research and technical development going on at MIT that I think my appetite for discovery and innovation will be fully sated."

Because of the convergence between the engineering and biological sciences, Hockfield believes that "MIT is positioned to make a real difference in defining the interdisciplinary areas, particularly in the communication sciences and in biological engineering." Funding for the life sciences has grown dramatically at MIT in recent years, she notes, and the National Institutes of Health--not the U.S. Department of Energy, not the Pentagon, not the National Science Foundation--is now its largest single source of research funding.

Hockfield is well qualified to attract and channel continued NIH funding. But she also intends, at the national level, to shine a spotlight on the underfunding of research and education in the physical sciences, which she describes as a great threat to the United States. "I hope to help our representatives understand the role of these investments in maintaining the strengths and the economic base of this nation," she says.

Hockfield also has expressed a special interest in designing early education programs to stimulate children's enthusiasm for science and math, and she's committed to providing opportunities and building communities for women, minorities, and international students and scholars.

At Yale, however, she was a firm opponent of graduate student unionization and conducted a long battle with groups trying to organize research and teaching assistants. Frustrated in their aims, some of the students do not have fond memories of her. Qin Qin, a Yale graduate student who works for the Graduate Student Organization, says she was "not good at listening to our concerns and bringing them to people in the [Yale] corporation."

Hockfield's approach was to promote improvements in the quality of campus life and the remuneration for graduate students. She saw to it, for example, that the graduate student's base stipend was increased by half. At the same time, "building an infrastructure to support graduate students so they could make the most of their graduate experience, I learned how productive it is to work in communities of people dedicated toward common goals," she says.

A major and perhaps unexpected problem facing Hockfield at MIT could arise from radical changes in the composition of the graduate student body--a sharp drop in enrollments of non-U.S. students seems likely. According to the most recent data, applications to U.S. engineering schools from students outside the United States dropped 36 percent for the current academic year [see box, " "].

Charles Vest, who was not only a highly energetic president but also an enormously active leader in national technology policy, leaves big shoes to fill. In the 14 years he served as president, he quadrupled MIT's endowment, built impressive new buildings (including the much-trumpeted complex designed by Frank Gehry), improved mental health services, and increased commitment to genomic medicine and other cutting-edge scientific endeavors.

In Washington, among other things, Vest chaired the presidential advisory committee on redesign of the space station and the Department of Energy task force on future science programs, and he served as a member of the prestigious and influential President's Committee of Advisers on Science and Technology. He currently is vice chair of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness and is immediate past chair of the Association of American Universities.

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