Jody Victor: Learn more about Dr. Susan Hockfield

“What’s important is not just the extraordinary inventions we produce but how we do the work.”

– Dr. Susan Hockfield

On October 27th 2009, US News & World Report announced its “America’s Best Leaders” list. Each year, the Report and the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University team up to select leadership honorees. The selection committee consists of academic, government, business, community and nonprofit leaders. A 15-member research team, consisting of graduate students from Harvard and students from Marietta College and the University of Oklahoma, sends the committee approximately 100 names and profiles to consider. The committee defines a leader as a person who “motivates people to work collaboratively to accomplish great things.” The twenty-two 2009 winners were chosen on how well they met the following criteria: Sets direction through a shared sense of purpose; achieves results that exceed expectations and are sustainable; cultivates a culture of growth through communication and inspiration of positive core values.

Susan Hockfield is one of the 2009 honorees for “America’s Best Leaders.” Dr. Hockfield received her bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Rochester in 1973 and her Ph.D. in Anatomy and Neuroscience from the Georgetown University School of Medicine in 1979 while working on her dissertation research in neuroscience at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Hockfield was an NIH post doctorate fellow at the University of California at San Francisco working in a pain perception lab alongside colleagues from many disciplines- clinicians, pharmacologists, anatomists and social workers.

Dr. Hockfield then served as the William Edward Gilbert Professor of Neurobiology at Yale University. She also took a central role in the university’s leadership serving as dean of its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and later as provost. As dean, she introduced the “Take a Faculty Member to Lunch” program to encourage informal faculty-student interactions.

Dr. Hockfield continued her scientific research at Yale while she was teaching and administering. She pioneered the use of monoclonal antibody technology in brain research and discovered a gene that plays an important part in the spread of cancer in the brain. Scientists working under her direction identified a family of cell surface proteins whose expression is regulated by neuronal activity early in an animal’s life. A link between her research and human health was made when it was suggested one of these surface proteins played a role in the progression of brain tumors. Recently she has focused on one type of brain tumor called glioma, a deadly kind of brain cancer.

In August 2004, Dr. Susan Hockfield was named the sixteenth president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She is the first woman and the first life scientist to hold the title of president of MIT. One of the first things she did was go on a listening tour. She asked students and faculty alike what MIT should focus on in the next decade. They gave her many different answers but all their comments had one unanimous theme: that MIT needed to have a larger impact in solving the world’s energy challenges. Dr. Hockfield has always had a strong belief in the vital role that science, technology, and the research university play in the world. She encourages collaborative work among MIT’s schools, departments, and interdisciplinary laboratories.

Under Dr. Hockfield’s leadership, MIT has launched a major Institute-wide initiative in energy research and education to continue expanding MIT’s activities at the intersection of the life sciences and engineering. She outlined and launched the MIT Energy Initiative, wooing major investments from industry sponsors and brought together scientists, engineers and policy wonks to work on global energy problems. Dr. Hockfield’s plans for MIT also include developing new models of teaching and research for a global age and extending the university’s long tradition of international engagement through initiatives with partners around the world.