A Mainspring of Collaboration

Her exacting fingers slowly turn the watch over, as she peers at metallic arms clicking time precisely by. The mysteries of the turning interior mechanics capture her curiosity with each wind of the stem. She cajoles off the embossed backplate and then the base plate—gears spring out untethered. Surrounded by miniature grooved metal discs and miniature gears she examines them, mouth pursed in rapt determination.

“I couldn’t think of a time when I didn’t take things apart to understand them—I’m passionate about finding out how things work,” explains Dr. Susan Hockfield, a neuroscientist and the first-ever biologist—and woman—to serve as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As a child, she’d leave a trail of bits behind her: a deconstructed vacuum, a pulled-apart iron, or a watch. “I have to confess; I wasn’t that interested in putting them back together.” Her father, a fixer with a degree in electrical engineering, would follow her path of pieces. “I imagine that he was just very methodically putting the things back together that I took apart.”

The trajectory of Dr. Hockfield’s career grew in the glow of her curiosity, and she earned a degree in anatomy—a science of dissection. Just as she divides things physically to increase our comprehension of them, she used technological tools to isolate components of the brain to understand its workings. Using a novel tracing technology, she identified nerve cells responsible for sending messages to a part of the brain that encodes information about pain, and this became the topic of her dissertation. “As an anatomist, my job was to essentially take things apart. But you can’t take things apart at the level of resolution you need in some instances, so I developed technologies to visualize and understand the components of the brain.” 

The ability to visualize things as components and systems that consort to make a greater whole enabled Dr. Hockfield to discover insights into how the brain develops and operates—and it also became a solid contributor to her success in turning MIT into a collaboration supernova.

This is what Dr. Hockfield will share with attendees at APEGA’s Nexus conference on June 7–8, 2023—how the combination of engineering and biology, along with some cooperation and innovation, can solve some of the world’s greatest challenges.

A calibre of understanding

She explains academic leadership was not on her radar. “It was not a career aspiration, not even a glimmer,” she laughs, but when the path was presented, first at Yale University, she took it, determined to approach it how she approaches most things: by first understanding the turning of the fitted gears. 

Dr. Hockfield’s fondness for those who are curious—and her own curiosity—made her an encouraging force in this endeavour. “I believe most of us seek meaning, and the meaning doesn’t come from a single experience or a single experiment. The precision of a single thing doesn’t tell the story unless it gets fit into the system in which it operates.” 

Entering MIT’s ecosystem, she began her role by inquiring about everyone’s greatest ambitions. “I was surprised and delighted that the most common answer I received was the wish that we could do more to solve the energy dilemma, to move us more rapidly through the energy transition. I think it’s an engineering culture that fosters this sense of responsibility.”

After she had received so many similar responses and heard about research that was already being pursued—what she calls wonderful jewels—it became obvious to Dr. Hockfield that these ambitions couldn’t be served by one lab or department alone. “It wasn’t enough to have an engineering solution, because without a political solution, without an economic solution, it would never get into application.”

Links of ambition

One of the sparkling jewels before her was a graduate student–led energy club ripe with those aspiring to become energy professionals, but who understood that their disciplines and specialties would need to intersect with others for them to be successful. Dr. Hockfield says this idea of bringing people together with a shared goal was the feedstock of inspiration for MIT’s Energy Initiative, a hub for energy research, education, and outreach she started to help participants scale their aspirations to achievable goals, such as improving the efficiency of the electric grid. “It was incredibly exciting to create opportunities for people to come together across disciplines to solve what, arguably, is the most serious problem of our era.”

These groups weren’t without their challenges: each discipline has its own unique language. All parties must be effective communicators and curious enough to ask questions and learn. “That’s what the academy is about: learning from one another and advancing our ideas through the ideas of others.” The institute is known for connecting industry partners with researchers and educators to move research to the real-world—she explains it’s in MIT’s very DNA. The founder of the institute, William Barton Rogers, a geologist who saw the power science held to improve our world in a very practical way, “developed these ambitions to start an institution that would provide the kind of education that would help accelerate the development of industry.” Dr. Hockfield followed his lead when she fostered developments to accelerate connections between MIT’s discoveries across its disciplines and industry applications, explaining that industry partners want to be early adopters of technologies shaping the future.

A bridge to responsibility

In our era of the rapid development of revolutionary technologies, such as those being created in the fields of artificial intelligence and bioengineering, Dr. Hockfield says ethics must be at the essence of everything we create. “As scientists and engineers, we’re on the forefront of discovery.” She explains those creating the innovations must be able to explain the potential benefits and the potential dangers, and it’s always a work in progress. She underscores that professional societies play a critical role in setting and enforcing these boundaries. “This is tough business, but it’s absolutely critical. We have to maintain the confidence of the greater community, of our population, if we expect them to continue to allow us to do the kind of work that we do.”

When the clock strikes change

Dr. Hockfield is a catalyst for transformation. When she heard from the dean of engineering that nearly a third of the faculty in the school of engineering was using biological parts in their work, she led the reorganization of research centres, reconfiguring them so interdisciplinary knowledge and collaboration and the creation of life-giving technology thrived. “Many MIT faculty members were using nature’s genius to build technologies of the future,” she explains. “It’s mind-blowing. We’re just starting to understand the jewels and gems in biology that could provide solutions to technical puzzles. We’re discovering biological processes that can be deployed to build water filters, to build batteries, to diagnose disease.” She continues to support our society’s most promising scientific ventures, championing new technologies through advocacy and awareness.

Dr. Hockfield’s father no longer needs to follow her around as she takes things apart, strewing bits about, after studying their inner workings. Now, she puts them back together cohesively, gears fitting, oiled, and turning more efficiently than before. She’s turned master builder of epic proportions, ensuring when the clock chimes the hour of change, we’ll face the world’s largest challenges, scientific solutions at the ready.