Convergence Fends Off Malthus

Visionary neuroscientist Susan Hockfield explains how biology-centric technological convergence may save humankind

Susan Hockfield
Susan Hockfield, PhD
President Emerita, MIT

Susan Hockfield has been driving progress in neuroscience research and university leadership for decades. Starting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, helping pioneer the field of molecular neurobiology, she has followed a winding career path, one that has taken her through both the research labs and administrative buildings at Yale University, as well as the office of the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Hockfield’s unique perspective on what drives innovation, both on the MIT campus and around the world, has culminated in her first book, The Age of Living Machines: How Biology Will Build the Next Technology Revolution. Julianna LeMieux, GEN’s senior science writer, recently had the chance to ask Hockfield about her career, the people who inspired her, lessons she learned along the way, and why she wanted to add “book author” to her CV. The interview, which appears below, has been edited for length and clarity.

“Bioengineering” is poised, your book suggests, to acquire a deeper meaning. Could you elaborate?

Hockfield: One of the most exciting things happening in science today is the convergence across disciplines. Biology now has a “parts list,” which allows it to be combined with different disciplines. I have seen this convergence in action across almost all of the disciplines at MIT and beyond.

As scientists, we know that new technologies can change our fields dramatically and open opportunities that we never imagined. My sense is that the infiltration of new technologies across almost every discipline is changing the game at a pace that I imagine we have never seen before.

We see this in the detection of gravity waves using laser interferometry, the ability to study tissue at the level of the gene expression of single cells and build single-cell atlases, new hope for fusion energy in our lifetimes through new magnet technology, and the ability to sequence and compare tens of thousands of genes. The application of new, powerful technologies always changes the way that people think about the problems that they can tackle. Today’s unprecedented pace of discovery is due to not just the advent of new technologies, but also to the fact that we are using them across disciplines.

What inspired you to make a career in neuroscience?

Hockfield: I have always been curious about how things work. As a child, I dissected flowers and acorns from the garden. My interest wasn’t restricted to living things: I also took apart my mother’s vacuum cleaner and my watch. It was intuitive to me that if I could examine the structure, and understand how each piece connected to another piece, I could understand how things work. So, somewhere deep in my brain, I had the idea that I could understand function by studying structure. It’s perhaps not surprising that my degree is in anatomy, with a focus in neurobiology.

Early in my studies, I was on a path to medical school which didn’t feel exactly right to me. A turning point came during one of my biology courses at the University of Rochester. I was enchanted by a lecture given by Professor Jerome Kay about how the electron microscope was transforming our understanding of subcellular organelles. I was in heaven—it was the first class that I had ever taken that totally captured my imagination and curiosity.

When I went to his office hours to ask him a question about some of the material, I somehow ended up baring my soul and sharing my ambivalence about going to medical school. His response was, “You should get a job in a lab.” So, I did. I remember, on the first day that I walked into the lab, I had the sense that I had found what I had been searching for my whole life.

My graduate school experience changed my life, opening up a new world and introducing me to a community of people with a common pursuit and a shared ambition.

At the beginning of my postdoc at University of California, San Francisco, I participated in a workshop at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where I met two scientists who shared with me some photos of the results they had obtained using monoclonal antibodies to study the leech nervous system; I was simply stunned by the beauty and possibilities of their discoveries. I worked on the project while I was at the workshop, and that turned into a job offer at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. This was in 1980, when just a few intrepid souls were beginning to use molecular biological approaches to see if they would provide new ways to understand brain organization, brain development, and brain function. I found myself in the vanguard of a new field, molecular neurobiology.

What has been the biggest surprise of your career?

Hockfield: In 1998, I accepted an invitation from Richard Levin, Yale’s president, to be Dean of the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences [after 13 years as a faculty member] with some ambivalence. I accepted it as a commitment to service. My graduate school experience had changed my life and opened up a new world to me. So, I felt that it was my responsibility to help make that experience as impactful for the next generation as it had been to me.

The transition to academic leadership was not in my career plan! But once I made the transition, I realized that those who serve as university leaders are more important than I would have guessed. I also discovered an exhilaration similar to that of working in the lab, in working together with people to solve problems that none of us could have solved on our own. I found that academic leadership requires what I already knew I enjoyed: working in multidisciplinary teams. Sometimes, we like to imagine that university leadership is carried out by individuals. In truth, it’s not. It’s done by teams of people with amazing insight who work collaboratively to serve our students, faculty, and staff.

In my university leadership roles, I used similar intellectual tools to those I used in directing my lab. At their best, universities build consensus, fostering collaborative thinking and working to build a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Could you offer any career development insights?

Hockfield: When you are on the frontier of knowledge, you have to be open to unusual opportunities and changes in direction. This is true in both the scientific domain and in career evolution.

I don’t think that anyone can plan their future with accuracy. It is important to have a plan, so you know what your next step is. But when you get to that next step, you will likely have to reconfigure your plan because you’ll see things from that step that you didn’t see before. And if your mind is open to them, opportunities will arise that you could not have anticipated. When people ask me how my career took unpredicted turns, my answer is, “I didn’t plan it, but I was prepared to say yes to unusual opportunities.”

As a trained neuroanatomist, the possibility of becoming a molecular biologist was not just unusual—it was crazy at the time. Most people didn’t believe that there was going to be any utility from that direction of research. But I had seen data that gave me the hope that these new tools could provide insight into some of the problems that I was devoted to.

What prompted you to write your first book? What makes it timely?

Hockfield: When I started at MIT, the then-Dean of the School of Engineering, Tom Magnanti, revealed to me that almost one-third of engineers in his school were using biological components in their work. That surprised me, and over the time that I was president at MIT, I kept running into examples of biology intersecting with engineering. What the book describes, in a more specific way, is that great advances in science are invariably tied to new technologies. And new technologies are invariably tied to new materials. The convergence of biology with engineering holds enormous promise for new technologies in many domains, but I’m fascinated by those hybrid technologies that may solve some of the daunting challenges we’re bound to face as we approach having almost 10 billion people on the planet by 2050.

The Age of Living Machines cover
In The Age of Living Machines, author Susan Hockfield describes how engineering disciplines are converging with biology to transform elements of the natural world—proteins, pathways, viruses, etc.—to create “living” solutions to humankind’s most pressing challenges.

At MIT, I facilitated a reorganization to create a cauldron of collaboration around this topic. On campus, faculty find each other to address the issues that they are studying—but it happens one by one. When I arrived at MIT, Tyler Jacks was the director of the Center for Cancer Research. As we talked about his vision for the next generation of cancer research, he was enthusiastic about new engineering contributions, which gave rise to the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research to accelerate progress in this new direction. At the same time, we started the MIT Energy Initiative, another cross-disciplinary program, which introduced me to a whole host of new convergence-based technologies, for example, battery technologies based on biology.

The more examples I found, the more I realized that the convergence is taking place all over the world. But it has not yet captured the imagination of the general public; most people don’t yet appreciate the power of the approach. So, writing the book was a natural next step to gather different examples of these technologies and provide a way for the general public to understand them. We are at a Malthusian moment, facing an impending crisis: our growing population demands new strategies to provide the healthcare, food, water, and energy to meet our needs affordably and sustainably. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenge.

I wrote the book to highlight emerging technologies that don’t fit under standard rubrics, but that offer a possibility to innovate our way out of our Malthusian dilemma. These are not the only technologies that could save the day, but they represent one exciting new avenue to get to a brighter future. The idea that motivated the book was to get these ideas into general conversation, and to give confidence that if we invest and orient ourselves correctly, we will once again defeat Malthus.