Susan Hockfield Guest Speaker at Beacon Hill Women’s Forum

Story by Marianne Salza

Susan Hockfield, Ph.D, the former first, female president of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), fell in love with biology early in life. Fascinated by discovering the workings of structural components, the young anatomist would dissect her parents’ iron and vacuum; but was utterly disinterested in the objects’ reassembly.

Hockfield shared what she had learned during her time as MIT president, her impression of the past five years, as well as her view of the future during a presentation for the Beacon Hill Women’s Forum (BHWF), at the Hampshire House on April 9.

“The future we live in today is a digital world, and the digital world represents a fabulous convergence of physics with engineering. We need a transformation in how we make things and how we think about our world,” Hockfield proclaimed.

Hockfield described her 2019 book, “The Age of Living Machines: How Biology Will Build the Next Technology Revolution,” which explains new developments in science and engineering.

“It’s happening at the level of a whisper; but if you pay attention, you’ll hear about it more and more,” Hockfield said about the innovations. “We have enormous challenges for this century. We have about 7.5 billion people on the planet today. There will be 10 billion by 2050, and already we’re not doing a good job at providing the necessities of life. We’re falling short on access to healthcare, and costs are astronomical.”

Most of Hockfield’s time at MIT has been spent pondering energy and the union of biology with engineering. The self-proclaimed fusion zealot enjoys discussions with colleagues about solving the world’s energy crisis.

“I think that fusion is going to be providing energy for us pretty soon,” Hockfield estimated. “The energy problem is daunting. There is a lot of energy around; but if you can’t do a good job storing the energy and power that we have, we’re in trouble. Our current storage devises are inefficient. They’re heavy, and it’s expensive to store energy.”

Hockfield predicts that large-scale batteries of the future will not be lithium-based; and is intrigued by a colleague’s discovery of utilizing viruses to make batteries.

“These batteries are exquisite, little ballerinas,” said Hockfield, raising her fingers in a gentle flick. “They use the power of biology to organize elements.” 

Hockfield feels that there are insufficient resources to provide food for the size of the world’s future population. She explained that farmland equivalent to the land mass of South America and Africa would be required to feed 10 billion people using today’s agricultural technologies.

“One of the exciting things I’ve discovered while researching is there are incredible things plants can do,” beamed Hockfield. “We have yet to push them to their limits in terms of producing food in a sustainable way.”

During her distinguished career, Hockfield led the application of monoclonal antibody technology in brain research, and identified a gene that is critical in the spread of brain cancer. Hockfield had been appointed as Yale University’s chief academic and administrative officer, supporting science, engineering, and medicine initiatives. While president at MIT, Hockfield increased the number of underrepresented minorities and women in the undergraduate, graduate, and faculty populations.

“I think there are a lot of women’s issues that get under-resourced and under-treated,” Hockfield admitted. “I’m hoping that will change as there are more women in the field.”

Hockfield presently serves as a professor of neuroscience in MIT’s Brain & Cognitive Sciences department, and is a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Currently, her greatest concern is the country’s lack of confidence in experts, and appreciation of science.

“Let’s hope that the technology revolution happens, not because of a threat of war, but the promise of peace,” concluded Hockfield. “I want to believe that the power of our technology we’ve developed today will continue to persuade people to invest and believe in it.”

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