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Science Friction

While that other university on the Charles was mired in ugliness over why more women don't succeed in science, MIT was hailing a new era with its first woman president. But for Susan Hockfield, who's devoted her career to understanding how the brain works, the rising debate is more than academic. It's her life.

The paint on the walls is chipped and cracked and mottled with hundreds of tiny pieces of plastic tape, the wrinkled shards of symposiums past. The front wall is dominated by sliding blackboards and huge projection screens, as if this were the lost set of some ancient television brain-teaser. To Tell the Truth, perhaps. Or I've Got a Secret.

The curving rows of faded lavender seats come alive with excited murmuring as the hall begins to fill. The faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has come here tonight to debate with one another, and a fine, bustling chunk of the student body has come to watch. For the third consecutive year, MIT faculty teams have come together to marshal what scientific arguments they can on the issue of whether the latke is a superior food to hamantaschen.

The event is sponsored by MIT Hillel and the Peter de Florez Fund for Humor. Before his death in 1989, de Florez, an MIT graduate, established a half-mil- lion-dollar fund to foster and encourage "activities related to humor" at his alma mater. It is, quite simply, a Lighten Up Endowment. Now, most universities do not need an alumni donation to bring the funny to campus. That's what they have freshmen for. The anticipatory hum rises into an anticipatory buzz as the principals for the main event enter and seat themselves beneath the big screens at the front of the room.

Susan Hockfield - or, rather, Susan Hockfield, PhD - will lead off on the side of the latke. Last August, Hockfield, a noted neuroscientist who previously had served as the provost at Yale, was elected the 16th president in MIT's history, succeeding Charles Vest. She took over the job in December and will be formally inaugurated next Friday. There is an anticipatory buzz around this event as well. Hockfield is the first female president in MIT's history, and she's the first life scientist ever to hold the post at an institution famous for its work in engineering and in the physical sciences. Both as a woman and in her chosen field, Hockfield seems to represent not merely a break in tradition but also a walking indication of where science is heading and, naturally, MIT along with it.

"I think it was a combination," explains Bishwapriya Sanyal, a professor of urban development and planning at MIT and a member of the faculty search committee that helped choose Hockfield. "If you look at the reception she received when she came to MIT, it was unbelievable, a standing ovation for like five minutes. I was surprised by how strongly people felt, and I was very taken by the enthusiasm for her. . . . What struck me was that she didn't look like she was desperate for the job."

There is a snap to Hockfield's blue eyes and a quick and ready intelligence in her conversation. However, it runs in soft channels, toward a lengthy stream of "fabulous"-es and "brilliant"s and other easy superlatives that make for a copious reservoir of the banal. Surely, this is primarily the reticence inherent in being new at the job, of gingerly testing the parameters of it, and that would be natural and fine, except that this particular job requires the person holding it to preside over an institution in which accepted boundaries are challenges, not limitations. Circumspection never got anyone to the moon, and it's not to be found anywhere in the job description of the president of MIT.

Hockfield has been on campus for far less than a year, and already the job has required her to respond judiciously to an intemperate controversy regarding the president of another university located just around a bend in the Charles. There's also a nasty ongoing spat involving a prominent faculty member and the Department of Defense. And that's not even to mention the overarching requirement of the job - to represent not only science at MIT, but Science Itself in a turbulent time of stingy budgets, and to become an advocate for, say, spelunking through the human genome in a turbulent political culture where people seriously fight over Darwin.

But this night, the room comes alive as Hockfield takes her seat on the latke side. Something of an innovation herself, she's taken charge of an institution dedicated at its heart ever to the startling New and charged with the energy of knowing that whatever comes next can come here first. To call MIT an institution in flux is to be both obvious and redundant. She rises to begin the debate. There is a general stomping and cheering. She argues that the (roughly) circular latke best represents MIT. "Look at the great circles of MIT," she says. "The dome. Our seal.

"I would never, ever eat a hamantaschen, and I would not even want to be close to one. This is my pledge, and you should believe me, and not only because I . . . am . . . the . . . president . . . of . . . this . . . great . . . institution."

She gets a big laugh and a cheer. That the school has chosen as its new president a woman whose scientific work primarily involves the workings of the brain is a metaphor not lost on many people.

"The brain controls everything, and it's very plastic, right, and it can change," says Jerome Friedman, an Institute Professor of physics and the chairman of the faculty search committee that helped choose Hockfield. "It's flexible, and MIT has a flexibility that other institutions don't have. If you have a good idea, they will find a way to help you do it."

Genius is a formidable accelerant, and this is a place of fearsome velocity. It's a place of vast intensity that moves like hidden lightning, past all those cluttered offices, all the way down what is called, quite seriously, the Infinite Corridor. Nothing happens here on automatic pilot.

It began when somebody gave her a watch. She was in third grade in Danbury, Connecticut, and someone gave her this watch, and Susan Hockfield decided to find out how it worked. She began to take it apart. She got down to the mainspring, and suddenly, what was left of the watch's innards exploded, scattering like shrapnel into all corners of the room. "I remember my overwhelming sensation being one of surprise and not guilt," Hockfield recalls. "So [the watch] must have been mine. But I was always fascinated by how living things work. I would pull apart leaves and flowers and things, to try and understand how they were put together."

Hockfield, 54, graduated from the University of Rochester in 1973 with a BA in biology, and she was awarded a doctorate in anatomy and neuroscience from Georgetown six years later. Beginning in 1980, she spent five years at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. She was hired by James Watson, who, working with Francis Crick, had famously discovered the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953.

By 1985, she was working at Yale, trying to pin down the cause of glioma, a deadly form of brain cancer that strikes particularly hard in children. "The way I got into it is a classical description of why basic science needs to be done in an undirected, curiosity-driven way - because I stumbled into it," she explains. "I was interested in the cellular-molecular mechanisms and how the brain puts itself together. During the development of the brain, there's a period when the brain is very plastic, and the cells move around and find their appropriate places and then put forward connections, and the connections are tuned up based on activity during what we call the critical period of development, and then the period of plasticity closes."

At the same time, Hockfield was rising at Yale as an administrator. In 1998, she was named dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the first member of the medical school faculty to hold that job. While dean, she worked to secure healthcare benefits for graduate students and to increase the stipends paid to them. She also worked to defuse the occasionally volatile relationship between the tenured faculty and the graduate students, who often are treated as grunt labor by the former.

In 2003, Yale appointed Hockfield as its provost, which put her in charge of the day-to-day functioning of the university. The following year, when author Naomi Wolf accused author and professor Harold Bloom of having sexually harassed her when she was a student in the 1980s, Hockfield wrote a very careful letter to the Yale student body. In it, Hockfield moved away from the merits of Wolf's accusation and into a general condemnation of sexual harassment and a strong endorsement of the policies that Yale had put in place since Wolf had been there as an undergraduate. The letter was a deft bureaucratic reply that defused what was becoming a media feeding frenzy, and it foreshadowed the stand on a similarly controversial matter she would have to take a year later at MIT.

As her administrative duties were expanding, Hockfield was moving farther away from the laboratory. "I was very active in my lab while I was dean of the graduate school. As provost, it would be just a few hours every other week," she says. "Obviously, I didn't move my lab up here, because I think balance for me is impossible, and partly because the research environment here is so rich with fabulous discoveries and fabulous science going on, why do I need to do my own?

"People ask me if I miss it. And I love being a scientist.... I love being part of academic administration. I find it enormously important."

At the beginning of December 2003, Charles Vest told the MIT Corporation, the institute's board of trustees, that he would be stepping down after 13 years as president of MIT. The search for a successor began almost immediately, and its scope was vast. There was a corporation committee and a faculty committee. As for winnowing the staggering pile of resumes that flooded in, there were very few rules.

"There was no template, because a template is restrictive," says Friedman. "Suppose we had a template that the person had to be a scientist or engineer. We would never have had Howard Johnson in the past." (Johnson ascended to the presidency out of MIT's Sloan School of Management in 1966.) Moreover, committee members insist, there was no imperative to find either a woman or a life scientist.

By all accounts, Hockfield's stock rose as the pile of resumes dwindled, particularly during the interview process. "When someone looks good on paper," says Paula Hammond, an associate professor of chemical engineering who worked on the faculty committee, "you still don't know how you'll feel when they're in a room with you. When Susan was in the room with us, she turned it on. There's an openness to her that people are drawn to."

For her part, Hockfield (she is married to Dr. Thomas Byrne, a neurooncologist, and has a teenage daughter, Elizabeth) began to want the job very badly. "There's a process of getting to know the institution," she says. "Because all these places have personalities. And as you get to know the people who are the expression of the institute's values and vision, there comes a point where you say, `Wow, what I've come to see is that this place could be home' in a very deep and very values-based sense. So, of course, I had the conversion experience.

"A eureka moment? They were the eureka weeks."

She got the phone call in August, and she and her husband cracked a bottle of champagne.

"You see?" says Hammond, waving her hand. "I still have my Brass Rat."

It seems that the MIT class ring always includes a depiction of a beaver, and the beaver is raggedy and scrawny and doesn't look very beaverish at all. So, because of this spavined specimen, the ring has become known as the Brass Rat, and each class designs its own. In March, the class of 2007 unveiled the design for its Brass Rat. It contained the undernourished rodent, as well as references to various campus buildings and to the Red Sox triumph last fall over the Yankees. It also included a woman. Several students walked out of the announcement in protest.

It was the corridors that first got to Paula Hammond, and not just the Infinite Corridor, MIT's 825-foot central artery that runs from a lobby off Mass. Avenue all the way through five different buildings toward Kendall Square. When Hammond got to MIT in 1980, fresh out of Detroit with her top-notch SAT scores, the hum in the hallways overwhelmed her. She was black and she was a woman, and that was unsettling enough on a campus that seemed to have few students who were either. (In the 1979-80 academic year, there were 806 female undergraduates and 3,711 male; in 2004-05, the figures are 1,765 women, 2,371 men.) But it was the casual conversations as she walked to class that unnerved her.

"I was scared," she recalls. "The first thing I saw was people, all of whom had SAT scores of 1,600, and all of whom were talking about things I hadn't heard of before. They were talking about complex problems, so, yeah, I was intimidated. I think I was pretty much scared all of freshman year." She battled through her first exams, regrouped, and battled through her second set.

"When I made it through freshman year, I said, `Well, I'm still here,'" she says. "And I did know some people who didn't make it through. Everyone here who seemed so smart, well, they were smart, but they were scared, too. Some of that talk was just bravado. When you first get here, it's like science West Point, you're so excited and cranked up."

Channeled as it is in hundreds of different directions, that intensity, based in the buzz in the hallways, is what makes Hockfield's job different from almost any other job in academia. Nothing happens at a lope at MIT, and everything, it seems, can happen at once. Consider the case of Hockfield's predecessor. Even the hiring of Charles Vest in 1990 had a touch of frenzy to it. MIT first offered the presidency to Phillip Sharp, a biologist and Nobel Prize recipient, who publicly accepted the job and then changed his mind days later. The institute then chose Vest, who, over the next 13 years, was confronted with a diverse array of issues, almost all of them rooted in the fearsome acceleration that seems to be endemic to every aspect of the institute's culture.

In 2000, three years after a hazing ritual left a freshman named Scott Krueger dead with a blood-alcohol level of .40 percent, Vest flew to Buffalo to apologize to the Krueger family and agreed to pay $6 million to them and to establish a scholarship in Krueger's name. Four years later, after a spate of student suicides, including one in which a sophomore immolated herself, Vest vowed to improve the institute's mental health services, and he forced through a requirement that all freshmen live on campus, breaking up the traditions that had led, in part, to Krueger's death. That shadow lingers as the families of two of the suicide victims still have ongoing lawsuits against MIT.

Around the same time, subtle changes in the admissions process began to alter the atmosphere around the institute. "The nature of the undergraduates is much closer to the kind of broad, well-rounded students I was used to as an undergrad" at the University of North Carolina, says Kip Hodges, who came to MIT as a graduate student. "There was a real rise in students . . . [who] have a huge variety of extracurricular activities. It used to be that we would compete for students with Cal Tech. Now we compete with Princeton. When I first came to MIT, I thought MIT students were a different breed of cat, and I don't feel that way anymore."

"There are still plenty of lab rats," says Hodges, "but they're more involved than lab rats used to be.

Under Vest, MIT's endowment rose from $1.4 billion to a peak of $6.5 billion in 2000. Since then, it dropped to $5.1 billion but is now back up to $6.5 billion. He also committed the institute to a $2 billion capital campaign to change the face of what Sanyal, who teaches urban architecture, thought upon his first look to be "a really terrible-looking campus." The campaign produced mixed results. Its signature building may be the new Stata Center, which sits like an ungainly wedge of cheese on the north end of campus. It was supposed to cost just over $100 million, but it came in at $300 million. Opinion was divided about the building. Some people saw a bold architectural statement. Others saw an immense white elephant, and noticed that, as the Stata Center went up, faculty salaries stayed frozen. Of course, at MIT, it's possible that both sides were right.

Vest also oversaw two developments at MIT that are more directly relevant to his successor's career. In 1995, in response to ongoing complaints from the women faculty members at MIT, he approved a task force that later returned a sweeping indictment of the MIT School of Science and proposed a series of changes that the school's dean implemented. "Many tenured women faculty," the report read, "feel marginalized and excluded from a significant role in their departments. Marginalization increases as women progress through their careers at MIT." Moreover, a second committee was appointed to study whether the recommendations of the first one were being followed.

"The first committee identified the problems," says Hodges, who served on the second committee. "The second one tried to understand how to improve the situation." At the same time, changes in the kind of science emphasized at MIT helped change this part of the culture as well. "It is a fact," he says, "that there are more women in the life sciences than in the physical sciences. Their interest in MIT - because of the rise of the biology department, the rise of biological engineering - has really changed the place."

A biotechnology empire has grown up all around MIT, and MIT was central to it. Phillip Sharp, the biologist who'd accepted the presidency for around 48 hours in 1990, helped lead the way by cofounding Biogen, one of the first big biotechnology firms in the area. Given the frenzied pace of discovery inherent in biotechnology research, MIT's involvement in the field was accelerated, even by the institute's considerable standards. Biotechnology money replaced the Defense Department money that had been a staple of MIT's fiscal health throughout the Cold War. In 2000, for example, MIT accepted a $350 million gift to establish an institute for brain research. It was the largest single gift ever given to a university to that date. Three years later, MIT and Harvard shared a $100 million grant aimed at putting new genomic data into practical use. In 2004, for the first time in its history, MIT drew more funding from the National Institutes of Health than it did from the Department of Defense.

In short, the major transformations in the culture of MIT during Vest's tenure all seem to have bent toward making inevitable the ascendency of Susan Hockfield, or someone like her. Hockfield's ability to ace the interview process also convinced the people making the decision that she would lobby as effectively for science as did Vest. "One of the things I've always admired about MIT is the bringing forward of innovation, bringing invention into practical use," she says. "MIT really sits at the junction between basic research and the world of industry. So it does not surprise me that MIT is very much linked to the real world. We believe this here. We make things. We change the world."

In January, Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University, gave a little speech. Before an audience that included women scientists, he spoke on the subject of, well, women in science. Over the next two months, Summers's remarks - in which he postulated that an examination ought to be conducted as to whether something inherent in women made them less likely to pursue careers in science - caused an immediate sensation. Nancy Hopkins, an MIT scientist who was instrumental in the institute's groundbreaking work on gender discrimination in the 1990s, gave everyone a memorable sound bite when she said that Summers's remarks caused her to flee the room, fearing that she might have "blacked out or thrown up." And, with that, pretty much, we were off.

MIT and Harvard have gotten along fairly well, at least since 1905, when Harvard finally abandoned its efforts to devour the institute. (A year earlier, students from the two schools staged a spirited hooley in which 50 people were injured.) There was a tacit agreement not to raid each other's faculties, and the rivalry played out primarily in the elaborate pranks with which MIT students sought to interrupt the Harvard-Yale football game. However, there was no possible way for Hockfield to avoid being drawn into the ongoing brawl - not as a woman in the sciences, and certainly not as the president of MIT.

She moved shrewdly, composing a measured response with John Hennessy, the president of Stanford, and Princeton president Shirley Tilghman. Published in the Globe, it was very much of a piece with the open letter she had addressed to the students at Yale on the subject of Naomi Wolf and Harold Bloom. The response chided Summers gently but moved on to propose the development of programs to encourage women in the sciences. It attempted to move beyond the calcified categories within which the debate was taking place. The discussion sparked by Summers's comments, the piece argued, "had the untoward effect of shifting the focus of the debate to history rather than to the future."

"We did not intend for the piece to be critical," Hockfield explains. "But the story was really the media, and, gosh knows, you don't want any part of those storms. But [the point] was to really change the dialogue to one of looking forward, taking advantage of the progress that had already been made and trying to amplify that, rather than this tit-for-tat criticism."

And, except for those members of the MIT community who thought Summers may have had a point or the ones who believed he was beset by what former Boston University president John Silber once termed, in another context, "a damned matriarchy," the piece was received very favorably around campus. "It was a statement that was strong and classy and didn't denigrate the person, but tried to set the record straight," says Paula Hammond. "Considering that [Hockfield] was still trying to figure out where the hallways led to, I really appreciated that."

At the same time, Hockfield had dropped in her lap the case of Ted Postol, a brilliant, irascible professor of science, technology, and national security policy. Postol is one of the most eloquent critics of the country's commitment to a national missile defense program - the offspring of Ronald Reagan's beloved "Star Wars" system - and he had been a thorn in Charles Vest's side over it for years. Postol had accused the MIT administration of complicity in scientific corruption in the laboratory that dealt with the data on missile-defense testing and, ultimately, of trying to run him off the campus, all the while hiding its actions behind the cloak of national security.

Postol and Vest were still feuding when the latter retired, Postol having expanded his critique to include Vest's handling of the institute's finances and, especially, the large expenditure on the capital improvements. Postol contacted Hockfield almost immediately upon her appointment. A meeting on January 31 of Postol, research associate Geoffrey Forden, Hockfield, and MIT provost Robert Brown apparently did not end well. Postol remains unsatisfied as Hockfield apparently has held to Vest's defense of the institute's integrity and its intention to investigate Postol's claims.

Hockfield declined to comment on the Postol controversy for this story. Instead, she authorized the MIT news office to release a four-month-old letter on the controversy that Vest had written before he left office. In that letter, Vest reiterated that MIT's investigation into Postol's charges had been stymied by a lack of access to classified materials. In associating herself with Vest's letter, Hockfield is acting the way a new president might well be expected to act. At the same time, the velocity of the job forces different imperatives on whoever holds it. Her reply is assuredly not going to satisfy Postol, and it may be that, in this matter at least, Susan Hockfield already is running behind.

In March, in the town of Dover, Pennsylvania, where they are fighting over Darwin, one local pastor gave the Agence France-Presse his evaluation of the cultural landscape. "We've been attacked," he explained, "by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture." And Dover is a part of the geography of Susan Hockfield's new job, as much as the Stata Center is, or the Infinite Corridor, or her office above Memorial Drive.

She comes alive, really alive, when she talks about the place that science should have in the world. When she talks about this, there are none of the easy superlatives that blossom in her speech when she talks generally about her new job. You can almost see the girl again, dissecting the innards of the watch. In her inaugural address, Hockfield will talk about her desire to help people fall in love with science. After all, science has been her job for longer than has been the presidency of MIT.

"I worry about it," Hockfield says. "I worry about it for our nation. I think that there's insufficient respect, shall we say, for the highest end of human intellectual endeavor. It's a real problem for us. I think that, in the sense that you could be an educated citizen, that you could be a responsible citizen, without having . . . an appreciation for what science and technology can do, I think we're soft on that. . . . MIT's great strength over the decades has been to pioneer the future. . . . The invention of the future is something that MIT takes very seriously."

She walks the halls, the Infinite Corridor as well as all the smaller ones. The energy that runs through them is as constant as it has been since steam gave way to electricity, and the atom to the power of the genome. Susan Hockfield's world is a faster place now driven by the great headlong momentum of the startling New. Several afternoons a year, the sun aligns perfectly down the length of the Infinite Corridor. A thousand years ago, people would have worshiped that. Now they study it. Times do change.

Charles P. Pierce is a member of the Globe Magazine staff. E-mail him at

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