Q & A: Dr. Susan Hockfield

Dr. Susan Hockfield
Dr. Susan Hockfield (G'79), Chair of the AAAS and former president of MIT, will deliver the commencement address to the Georgetown College Class of 2018.

May 15, 2018 — The 2018 Georgetown College commencement speech will be delivered by Dr. Susan Hockfield (G’79), former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and current elected Chair of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Hockfield received her Ph.D. in anatomy (concentrating in neurobiology) at Georgetown’s School of Medicine and subsequently researched at the University of California, San Francisco and at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Her research identified proteins that play a role in activity-dependent brain development. She moved into academic administration while teaching at Yale University, eventually serving as dean of the graduate school and university provost.

A pioneer in both neurobiology and academic administration, Hockfield became the first woman president of MIT in 2004, holding the office until 2012. She remains a member of the MIT faculty today and serves as Chair of the AAAS, the largest general scientific membership society in the world.

We caught up with Hockfield last week to discuss her career, the role of the modern university, her advice for undergraduates, and more.

What led you to pursue a career in the natural sciences? In neurobiology?

I loved science from as early as I can remember. In my junior year of college, I took a course in cell biology, and that led me to a job between college and grad school in a neurobiology lab. It just fascinated me.

What brought you to Georgetown for graduate school?

You admitted me! The offer from Georgetown came with two important components. The first was a stipend to get me started, which was very helpful. Even more importantly, they gave me the opportunity to get started right away. Georgetown let me start off-cycle, in January, which was unusual. They also continued to offer me an inordinate amount of flexibility in my research.

The chairman of my department told me about an inquiry for a summer intern from a lab at the National Institutes of Health. That lab became the place where I did my research, whereas most graduate students conduct all their research on the Georgetown campus. I was lucky that my advisor, Stephen Gobel, had an affiliation with Georgetown.

Do you have a favorite experience or memory from your time here?

Going to Georgetown was a transformational experience for me in so many ways — it’s where I really learned how to learn. The course that stands out still is gross anatomy, which I had dreaded going in. But that’s where I learned how to make sense of things for myself.

I also learned to teach and to love teaching, as it was a requirement at the graduate program. I entered the program thinking I wouldn’t enjoy it, and I discovered something new about myself — that I really loved teaching.

As a trailblazing woman in a historically male-dominated field, what advice do you have for aspiring women scientists?

As I reflect on how I navigated the difficulties, the best advice I have is to stay focused on your purpose, on your mission. What I hope for all the graduates is that they will find their calling. It makes it so much easier to stand up for yourself and your work if you know that you have a mission.

What inspired you to move into academic administration?

It was my experience at Georgetown, actually. I emerged from Georgetown as a scientist, in the classic solo scientist model. But later I realized that a huge number of people at Georgetown had created conditions that encouraged independent scholarship and brought people together in productive ways. I hadn’t anticipated moving to academic leadership, but when asked at Yale, I realized I could and should shoulder the responsibility of strengthening the student experience.

What should be the biggest priorities for modern institutions of higher education?

I still have a canonical view of the role of a university. I think these institutions need to create new opportunities for scholarship, using the catalytic mix of education and research to create educational and research opportunities for as broad a coalition as they can. Universities foster individual development and exploration, which creates benefits for society as a whole.

Why is the AAAS important today?

The theme that captures the role of the AAAS is what our CEO Rush Holt has articulated: We are a force for science in the world. Science provides a foundation for all the technologies we enjoy — all of today’s advanced products, pharmaceuticals, and devices can be traced back to a discovery in fundamental research. When you think about meeting our current and future needs of food, energy, medicine, transportation, or communication, the needed advances will all draw on discoveries from basic scientific research.

The scientific enterprise rests on shared values: That evidence matters, that we search for truth independent of our individual background, that we seek out explanations of the world around us, that the human mind has an indomitable desire to make the world a better place.

What don't a lot of people know about you?

I was an anatomist from my earliest days, and I used to dissect anything that came my way — my mother’s iron, my wristwatch, my neighbor’s pneumatic door closer. Occasionally I could reassemble them, but usually not. I left this trail of debris behind me, and I didn’t appreciate that it was unusual. Happily, I found a more productive use for that tendency!

Interview conducted by Patrick Curran and edited for length and clarity.