First woman to head MIT

Susan Hockfield will also be institution's first life scientist president

Aug 31, 2004
Maria Anderson(

Susan Hockfield, a neurobiologist and current provost at Yale University, will succeed Charles M. Vest as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) 16th president, the school announced last week (August 26). Hockfield will be the first woman and the first life scientist to lead the traditionally male-dominated engineering school.

Of her election, Hockfield said in a statement released by MIT, "From my first conversations in the search process, the institute's central themes—the pursuit of truth, integrity, and the great meritocracy—have resonated with my own core values. This remarkable community's curiosity, intellectual commitment, and passionate determination to solve problems have brought immeasurable benefit to humankind. It is an enormous honor and a very great privilege to have been selected to join this effort as MIT's next president."

As president, she said that she hopes to encourage interdisciplinary collaborations between MIT's departments, schools, and affiliated research centers, and to promote the improvement of K–12 science and math education nationwide.

"As a strong advocate of the vital role that science, technology, and the research university play in the world, and with an exceptional record of achievement in serving faculty and student interests, Dr. Hockfield is clearly the best person to lead MIT in the years ahead," said Dana Mead, chairman of the MIT Corporation, in a statement.

Hockfield, 53, received her doctorate in anatomy and neuroscience from Georgetown University School of Medicine in 1979 and conducted postdoctoral research at the University of California, San Francisco. After serving as a senior staff investigator at New York's Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, she joined the Yale faculty in 1985, rose to full professor in 1994, and was appointed the William Edward Gilbert Professor of Neurobiology in 2001. She served as dean of Yale's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for 4 years before being elected provost in 2002.

Her research focused on the development of the mammalian brain and central nervous system. One of the first scientists to use monoclonal antibody technology to study the brain, she discovered a family of cell surface proteins whose expression corresponds with neuronal activity early in an animal's development. She has also studied central nervous system gliomas and identified a gene and its protein products that influence the movement of cancer cells in the brain.

Her background will further MIT's attempts to bridge the gap between its technology and engineering strengths and the burgeoning field of life sciences, the Boston Globe editorialized last week (August 27).

While the presidential search committee told The New York Times that gender was not a consideration in their decision, the election of a woman president comes as the institution is working on the recommendations of the MIT Gender Equity Project, which has been investigating the treatment of female faculty since 1995. In response to their 1999 report, A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT, MIT formed a Council on Faculty Diversity and hosted a Presidents Workshop on Gender Equity in Academic Science and Engineering in 2001, which included representatives from nine major US research universities.

Vest, Hockfield's predecessor, announced his resignation last December after 14 years of service to the institute. In February, President Bush appointed him to the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. MIT plans for Hockfield to take office in early December.

Hockfield is married to Thomas N. Byrne, professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Yale University School of Medicine. They have one daughter.