As an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, she was exposed to the latest developments in cell biology. The development of electron microscope technology had made it possible to study the mechanism of living cells at a deeper level than ever before, and young Susan Hockfield was enthralled. It had been expected that she would go to medical school, but her interests had already begun to lead her in another direction. A sympathetic professor urged her to look for a job at the university's medical school. She knocked on doors until she found an opening for an assistant in one of the school's laboatories, where she confirmed her growing passion for research. After graduating a semester early in 1973, she landed a job as an electron microscopy technician at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Intrigued by the possibilities of remaining in Washington and working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), she enrolled in the Ph.D. program in anatomy at Georgetown University Medical School.
Advances in cell biology were transforming the field of brain research, and Hockfield plunged enthusiastically into the emerging discipline of neurobiology. Performing much of her research at NIH under the supervision of Dr. Steven Gobel, Hockfield collaborated with him on her first scientific publications, papers on the mechanisms of pain and sensory memory. After she was awarded her Ph.D. in anatomy and neuroscience in 1979, she received an NIH Fellowship for postdoctoral research at the University of California, San Francisco. Her work soon caught the attention of Dr. James Watson, discoverer of the DNA molecule, who hired her as a staff investigator at the renowned Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. Even after Hockfield joined the faculty of Yale University School of Medicine in 1985, Dr. Watson insisted that she continue running the Cold Spring summer program in neurobiology.
Leading a team of graduate students in her own laboratory, Hockfield attempted to explicate the mysterious role of glial cells in the brain. Unlike neurons, glial cells continue to reproduce throughout the lifespan of the organism and are susceptible to the insidious form of brain cancer known as glioma, which can spread undetected through these cells, outside of the visible tumors associated with other forms of cancer. Dr. Hockfield's discovery of a specific gene and related proteins that influence the movement of cancer cells in the brain have opened new avenues for the treatment of this deadly cancer. Her work has resulted in four United States patents and in the publication of more than 90 scholarly papers.
At the same time that her achievements in neuroscience were winning international recognition, her leadership and administrative abilities were making a deep impression on Yale Medical School and the university as a whole. In 1998 she was named Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, with oversight responsibilities for 70 different graduate programs. Her experience in brain research had taught her the necessity of interaction between medical scientists, anatomists, biologists, chemists and psychologists; as Dean, she fostered cross-disciplinary collaboration in research, and greatly increased the funding of all graduate programs. In 2001, her achievements in neuroscience where recognized with her appointment to an endowed chair at Yale, as William T. Gilbert Professor of Neurobiology. She also successfully resolved a dispute with student employees who were planning to strike for better working conditions. The university found further need for her administrative talents two years later, naming her Provost, Yale's chief academic and administrative officer, second only to the President of the University.
As expected, Dr. Hockfield brought to MIT a new emphasis on the intersection of engineering and the life sciences, particularly in cancer research. She renovated the undergraduate curriculum and undertook major construction projects to enlarge the MIT campus. Today the campus occupies 168 acres and the student body numbers 10,000. Although presiding over a vast university occupied most of her working hours, Susan Hockfield also held an appointment as Professor of Neuroscience in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
Despite Dr. Hockfield's renown as a neuroscientist, her greatest accomplishments at MIT lay in another direction altogether. Within a year of taking office, she inaugurated the MIT Energy Initiative, a massive research and education program to address one of the world's most pressing needs. It is expected that the world's energy use will double by 2050, a demand that cannot be met by existing energy sources. Federal spending on energy research peaked after the oil shocks of the 1970s, but fell by over 90 percent in the following 20 years.
Susan Hockfield stepped down from the Presidency of MIT in 2012. During her eight years as president, MIT's international reputation as a leading research university was further enhanced. To date, 75 past and present members of the faculty have been awarded the Nobel Prize for their achievements. Her eminence as a scientist and educator has made her a leader in the community as well as the world of science. Among her numerous honors, awards and professional associations, she is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Trustee of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, an Overseer of the Boston Symphony and a Director of the General Electric Company, her father's longtime employer.