A neurobiologist from Yale University has been named president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The appointment of Susan Hockfield to succeed Charles Vest in December reflects the growing importance of the life sciences at MIT, which for the first time in its 142-year history will be led by a woman.
"I think they are slightly redefining MIT" by choosing Hockfield, says James Watson, a Nobel laureate who hired her as a junior investigator at New York's Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1980. "They haven't chosen someone from the military-academic-industrial complex." Her selection, he adds, "is great for neuroscience at MIT." This year, for the first time, MIT will receive more research dollars from the National Institutes of Health than from the Pentagon.
Hockfield is currently provost at Yale, which she joined as a faculty member in 1985 and also served as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She possesses "a rare combination of scientific achievement, outstanding managerial talent, and an extremely engaging personal style," says James Champy, who chaired the presidential search committee. MIT's previous 15 presidents have been male engineers or physicists, and the institution's prominence has made them national spokespersons for the science and engineering communities. Vest, a mechanical engineer, certainly played that role during his 14 years at the helm. Although Hockfield hasn't yet had such high-profile experience, her boss, Yale's Richard Levin, predicted that she "will take a leading role in shaping national science policy."
Hockfield's research has focused on brain tumors, and her work using monoclonal antibody technology led to the discovery of a protein that regulates changes in neuron structure. She also found a gene and proteins that may help researchers battle the spread of particularly deadly brain cancers. Yale colleagues cite her efforts to increase the number of women faculty members, a contentious issue at MIT since a 1999 report that was harshly critical of its treatment of women (ScienceNOW, 23 March 1999.