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Susan Hockfield
Susan Hockfield
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Susan Hockfield Interview (page: 4 / 8)

President Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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  Susan Hockfield

When you started graduate school, had you already dropped your plan to get an M.D.?

Susan Hockfield: When I got to graduate school, it was suggested many times that I should perhaps not just get a Ph.D. but get a Ph.D. and an M.D. And it was funny, I started graduate school in January. I have done more things than probably would be good for me counter-cyclically. So rather than starting in September with everyone else, I started with January, just because that's the way it worked out. Actually, because I was anxious to start now. Once I've decided what I want to do, I want to do it now. I'm not a particularly patient person. And I had the remarkable good fortune to get a summer internship in a lab at the National Institutes of Health, a neurobiology lab. And so during the academic year from September through June I would take classes, and then from June through September I would be in the lab full-time, and I would try to get to the lab as much as I could during the course period of the year. And every time I thought about doing the M.D., all I could think about was that there would be long stretches of time when I couldn't be in the lab, and I just couldn't do it. I just could not imagine not being in the lab.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Susan Hockfield Interview Photo
In retrospect -- could've, would've, should've -- yes, it would have been good for me. Actually, I think it would have been very good to have done the double degree, because over the period from 1980, when I started my lab, 'til say 1998 when I became dean of the graduate school at Yale, the world of the life sciences changed so dramatically. When I began my lab in 1980, the idea that the things I would be doing would have a clinical significance in my lifetime was really pretty remote. But over the next even ten years, it became clear that there was hardly anything you could do in a biologically oriented lab that didn't spin off something that would have a clinical application. And for that, I think having had an M.D. training would have been very useful. But it worked out.

Your graduate school was Georgetown, which is just up the road from NIH. Was that a coincidence? Serendipity? Luck?

Susan Hockfield: Yeah, huge serendipity or luck. My first job was in Rochester at the medical school at the University of Rochester. I then moved to Washington and had a job at George Washington University as a lab technician. Actually as an electron microscopy technician. I have a great affinity for how structure allows you to understand function. So I was working at a lab at GW, and only applied to graduate schools in Washington. I wanted to stay in Washington, and Georgetown made a more attractive offer than GW, so I started graduate school at Georgetown. A fair amount of serendipity is the way to put it. The man who became my dissertation advisor had an opportunity to bring a graduate student as an intern into his lab at NIH, and let the chairman of the Department of Anatomy know, and he sought me out and said, "Perhaps you'd like to pursue this opportunity for the summer." And I did, assuming I was going to do something else for my dissertation, but my experience in that lab led me to my dissertation work.

What was his name?

Susan Hockfield: Steven Gobel. That was funny. Again, serendipity, unusual. I was the only graduate student he ever had. At NIH there aren't graduate students. Generally, you have post-docs -- you don't have graduate students -- and so I was his only graduate student, and what a wonderful experience for me. I had worked in a lab already for two years, so if you enter graduate school without any previous lab experience, there's a huge amount you need to learn just in terms of how you work in a lab. There are thousands of things about how you work in a lab that you just need to learn, and it takes some time. But I had already learned much of that as a lab technician, and if I had gone to work with a scientist who is used to having graduate students, I would've done the things that graduate students do. But instead I went to work with someone who was used to having post-docs, so he didn't think there was anything unusual about my fast-forwarding through that graduate student stuff and just jumping in essentially at a post-doc level. So my graduate research was done with the kind of independence normally accorded only to a post-doc, and I was in an environment where everyone was considered to be a mature scientist, and it was just wonderful. Wonderful. There were very few graduate students around, so I had access to spectacular scientists, one on one, in the midst of this very large group in which I was working. A hugely fortunate, deep, intense educational experience.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Were you still pursuing cell biology generally at this point, or had you already decided to focus on the brain specifically?

Susan Hockfield: Oh, I was all brain all the time! By the time I finished graduate school I was all brain all the time. But an interesting thing happened. I got my Ph.D. in 1979 and spent a year doing a post-doc at University of California, San Francisco and then moved to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Just to give you a sense, in 1980, the first brain gene was cloned. It was the sub-units of the acetylcholine receptor. Molecular biology has provided a powerful source of fundamental information about biological systems. Neuroanatomy took off from some general concepts of biology and anatomy, but not very much -- not as far as tools; but molecular biology could provide that. Now before 1980 molecular biology was in its infancy. This grew out of the elucidation of the structure of DNA in the early '50s and then the understanding that RNA comes from DNA and the RNA coats for protein -- a phenomenal set of discoveries. But the techniques had very low resolution.

Technology determines in a very important way what you can see, what you can do. You can't do experiments beyond what your technology allows, and often the breakthroughs come because you or someone else has figured out how to make that technology go a little deeper, go a little further, provide a little higher resolution. But early molecular biology required a huge vat of one kind of cells, multiplied over a zillion times, in order to find a single gene. So just the requirements of doing molecular biology experiments basically require that you had a single cell, and a hundred thousand copies of that single cell, in order to get your hands on a gene that was important in that cell. But by the late '70s, the techniques had gotten better, so that you could study a gene that was not expressed in a hundred thousand of the exact same cells, but you could actually find it in a complicated tissue like the brain. The brain has thousands and thousands of different kinds of cells. Some cells express these acetylcholine receptors, some don't. And the resolution of the molecular biology techniques finally began to allow you to look at a complicated tissue. And so I, as I started my own lab at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, had access to technologies that we really never had before, and that allowed us to look at what was happening at the level of individual cells in the brain. So I did all brain all the time, but I would no longer be characterized as a neuro-anatomist. I became a molecular neurobiologist and devoted the rest of my research real exclusively to questions of brain development mostly.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

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