Susan Hockfield is well known for her role in launching the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the MIT Energy Initiative, while she served as the research university’s first female and first biologist president. Calling together experts from a diverse range of extremely specialized fields, as well as orchestrating fundraising efforts that brought in hundreds of millions of dollars, Hockfield clearly demonstrated her mastery as a leader. In an interview that took place this month, just before she was to begin her yearlong term as AAAS president, she explained her approach to leadership more simply and concretely.
“The success of MIT’s major initiatives came from articulating a vision that brought people together and made them want to devote their time—and their resources—to address some of our most daunting challenges,” she said. She added that working together to clearly articulate the value and importance of scientific research and innovation is more than ever the imperative of AAAS and its members. “I hope we can encourage scientists and engineers, young and old, from industry and the academy, to come together with unprecedented strength and effectiveness to be a ‘Force for Science.’”
Well before Hockfield became an academic leader, she was a scientist. Even as a child, she took things apart—flowers and seed pods, watches, vacuum cleaners—to understand how their component parts gave rise to their function. In time, she channeled her early passion for how things work into academic study, majoring in biology at the University of Rochester and earning a Ph.D. in anatomy and neuroscience at Georgetown University School of Medicine.
As a researcher, Hockfield was among the first scientists to apply molecular biology to neuroscience, using monoclonal antibodies to study the brain. She demonstrated that extracellular matrix in the brain decorates the surface of neurons with astonishing molecular variety, and that early experience regulates its expression. She discovered a gene involved in the spread of cancer in the brain that allows glioma, one type of brain cancer, to move through healthy brain tissue, making it particularly deadly.
Hockfield officially began her career as an academic leader in 1998, serving as the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale University. She subsequently served as Yale’s provost, before being named president of MIT, where she is currently a professor of neuroscience, having stepped down from the presidency in 2012 after serving for eight years.
As Hockfield moves into her role as AAAS president, she often makes the point that the challenges facing the world as the population grows to more than 9 billion by 2050—including the need for improved access to sufficient food, clean water, sustainable energy and health care—can only be met through fundamental scientific and engineering research, accompanied by the translation of that research into market-ready applications. Throughout her career, and especially through her connection to MIT, Hockfield has witnessed dozens of scientific discoveries that developed into technologies that transformed and improved daily life, and that fueled the engine of industrial and economic progress. Among the examples she cites is research from applied mathematics that led to the founding of Akamai, a firm that has provided a content delivery network to firms ranging from Apple to Google, and represents “the invisible conduits of the Internet,” as Hockfield puts it.
To promote the process of scientific advancement for which the United States is known and which is so necessary to addressing the challenges facing the country and the world, Hockfield believes strongly in encouraging even the youngest students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“We must vociferously and perpetually encourage those who have a passion for understanding the science of our universe and for inventing new solutions to tough challenges. Our world needs them!” said Hockfield, adding that supporting women and underrepresented minorities in science is crucial, because studies have dem- onstrated the importance of different perspectives in finding solutions to problems. “Leaders at every level, from grade school teachers and principals, to heads of national and international organizations and governments, must convey respect, support and enthusiasm for all who venture into STEM.”
Hockfield is an adamant advocate for bringing together scientific disciplines, something that she experienced early on as a researcher and that she orchestrated at MIT’s Koch Institute, which brings together biologists, engineers, physical scientists and clinicians to accelerate the fight against cancer. She sees AAAS as offering many avenues for encouraging multidisciplinary approaches, including raising the visibility of such approaches through the Science family of journals and through meetings, making discoveries accessible to AAAS members from all disciplines through expanded highlights and previews of journal articles aimed at non-specialists, and gathering investigators from different fields around particular challenges or topics.
Behind all of Hockfield’s goals for bolstering the scientific enterprise lies the idea that brought success to the MIT projects she once shepherded—the concept of articulating the power and potential of scientific research in order to encourage participation and funding.
“Achieving public buy-in for technology solutions will require even better communication strategies,” said Hockfield in her candidate statement, “including helping to mobilize, energize, and equip science enthusiasts to raise their voices in the public domain.”
A version of this article appeared in AAAS News & Notes, in the February 24, 2017, issue of the journal Science.