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Susan Hockfield

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UPMC Facts and Figures

  • 31,000 students of which 20 percent are international
  • 3,000 doctoral candidates
  • 9,600 in staff, of which 3,750 are professor-researchers
  • 100 research laboratories
  • 8 main teaching hospitals
  • 8,500 publications per year (approx. 11% of the publication in France)
  • Ranked the top university in France and 6th in Europe by both Shanghai and Taiwan.
  • 4th in the world for mathematics
  • Member of three of the five the European innovation networks, in: Climate, ICT, and Health

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Susan Hockfield

Susan Hockfield

Susan Hockfield has been President of the prestigious MIT since 2005. In addition to her rich political and administrative career, which she began at Yale University, she has never ceased her research activities. Using monoclonal antibodies on brain extracts, she discovered a gene that plays a crucial role in the spread of cancer in the brain. This discovery led to the characterization of a family of cell surface proteins. She has received many prizes and distinctions, such as Yale University’s Sheffield Medal in 2004 and the Golden Plate Award of the Academy of Achievement in 2005.

This honorary doctorate comes in recognition of an exceptional body of work and numerous contributions to neuroscience. Which of your research achievements do you feel are most significant, and why?

The work my colleagues and I did demonstrating that experience can permanently alter the expression of genes and proteins in the brain provided the first molecular candidates for stabilizing connections in the developing brain. While anatomical and physiological observations had shown activity dependent changes, the concept that a corresponding biochemical change would leave a permanent trace was quite novel. The family of molecules we identified has been shown to play a role in inhibiting brain remodeling and has great significance in brain development; it also has powerful implications for the ability (or lack thereof) of the mature brain to “rewire” after injury.

The vastly accelerating pace of molecular neuroscience has provided insight into how those early, hard-won, single gene and single protein discoveries fit in complex systems. As a scientist, it’s deeply gratifying to feel that you have helped add another link, however modest, to the chain of knowledge.

As MIT’s president, I no longer maintain an active research lab, but I am enormously encouraged by the extraordinary work of the many neuroscience labs at MIT and elsewhere that is now moving discoveries from the bench to the bedside. Not long ago, neuroscience was essentially a descriptive science – fascinating, but without much hope for practical application in the near term. Today, with the tools of molecular biology, technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging and the growing power of advanced computation and other strategies from engineering, the study of the mind and brain is racing towards real-world significance. I’m optimistic that in our lifetime, we will see new advances against complex and previously intractable disorders like autism and Alzheimer’s disease.

 

How do you feel the situation for women in the field of scientific research has evolved over the space of your career so far? Are proactive measures for the promotion of scientific education and careers for girls and young women still necessary? Are there examples of such measures undertaken at MIT?

Let me start with the example of one of MIT’s most distinguished faculty members, Barbara Liskov. Forty-one years ago, she was the first woman in the United States, and likely the world, to receive a doctorate in computer science. Just last year, she won the Turing Award, considered to be the Nobel Prize of computer science. But when she was in school, her father suggested that she take a course in typing, in case she had to support herself as a secretary.

Certainly the world has changed, and in ways that make me extremely hopeful. Having said that, barriers do remain, from the challenges of balancing the demands of a young family with the intensity of a scientific career, to cultural inhibitions that keep girls from expecting themselves to succeed in math and science. Students and faculty at MIT have developed a range of programs to bring middle school and high school girls to our campus and our labs, to get them excited about what they could achieve in the world through the power of math, science and engineering.

MIT began officially admitting women in 1883, but relatively few women enrolled before the 1960s. This year, 45% of our undergraduates are women, even with our intensive focus on science and technology. Our female professors lead extraordinarily impressive research projects, from Maria Zuber, who heads a $420 million project to explore the moon using twin satellites, to Angela Belcher and Paula Hammond, who invented revolutionary new batteries that are self-assembled by benign viruses, to JoAnne Stubbe, decorated with the National Medal of Science this year for her work in understanding the mechanisms of enzymes that play an essential role in DNA replication and repair. The creativity and accomplishments of these remarkable scholars make it much easier for girls and young women to imagine a productive and fulfilling life in science.

 

As President of MIT, what are the main strategies you support in order to strengthen partnerships with other universities and research institutions around the world?

At MIT, we follow the research interests of our faculty members. Our faculty’s pursuit of important research problems and productive collaborators has initiated a range of significant global engagements, from Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, located in the zero-carbon, zero-waste Masdar City, to our Alliance for Low-Carbon Energy with Tsinghua University and the University of Cambridge, to our multi-faceted work in Singapore including the recent launch of the Singapore University of Technology and Design, established in collaboration with MIT, where the integration of design and engineering will provide the foundation for a new curriculum.

If we want to tackle this era’s great, global challenges, working with partners across geographic boundaries becomes increasingly important. The innovation frontier now stretches around the world; we must engage with other hubs of innovation to remain on that frontier and to continue to be an engine for new ideas.

 

What does this honorary degree represent for you?

It is an extraordinary honor to be recognized by UPMC, which is not only the leading institution of science in France, but also the embodiment of the incalculably inspiring scientific values and standards of Pierre and Marie Curie. More broadly, this honor speaks to a defining feature of academic life, particularly in the sciences and technology: that the same ideas are pursued simultaneously around the globe. In a world too often fractured by conflict, this tradition of the “global intellectual commons” represents an important convening force for humankind and a powerful tool for a unified global ambition to advance the common good. If we nurture the global intellectual commons by sharing our knowledge and reaching out to work with collaborators across the Atlantic and around the world, and if we train our students to appreciate the value of this remarkable tradition, we can make great contributions towards inventing a better future for all of humankind.



05/05/10