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Women In Power: Susan Hockfield, MIT President, on Women in Science, Revolutionary Technologies, Why U.S. Policies Must Change

Posted: 06/22/11 07:49 AM ET

A special series profiling trailblazers in energy innovation and champions of the environment. See previous stories here.

"It is very clear to me--and I wish it were clear to everyone else--that the reason I am president of MIT right now is because of decades of very hard work by generations of women before me," Susan Hockfield says. "The first woman graduated from MIT in 1873 and it officially became a coeducational institution in 1883, so there have been women on our campus for a very long time." And that long progression is punctuated by Hockfield, who took the helm of the innovation powerhouse in 2004--the first woman to do so since MIT's founding 143 years earlier.

According to Hockfield, it wasn't until the 1960's when "there was an effort made to increase the number of women students" that any significant presence beyond men could be felt. Fast forward to 2011 and "the world has changed a little bit since MIT began. 47 percent of our undergraduates are women and for them, like the men, 85 percent will graduate with a bachelor's degree in science or engineering," she says.

And where from here? "Of course, with roughly half of our population female, the goal would be for almost half of our faculty to be women--the way almost half of our students are. As a nation and the world we are in desperate need of people with the kind of education MIT provides and when as a society we inadvertently or overtly make it difficult for half of our population to participate, we are much the poorer," Hockfield says. "That really is at the core of our efforts to make sure that places like MIT and the enterprises of science and engineering and mathematics are open and welcoming to women and men and to people of all backgrounds."

That inclusive approach is also evident in Susan's leadership style. In a revelatory move, she immediately embarked on a months-long listening tour upon her arrival from Yale. "MIT is a different institution with different people and what was most important to me was getting to know this community and their ambitions and dreams," Hockfield explains. "What were MIT's responsibilities and opportunities for the next decade?" She was "delighted to hear the response to that question was an almost unanimous cry for MIT to have a greater impact in changing the world's energy system." And so the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) was born.

"There were a tremendous number of important energy research projects already underway at MIT," Susan remembers. "And we reasoned that by gathering that work together under the umbrella of the energy initiative, we could have a larger impact and attract more people and funding to the cause, which has been the case."

The work underway at MITEI runs on parallel tracks. Near-term: improving the current generation of energy technologies. Hockfield says we will continue to rely on our present energy mix for a couple of decades and "it has to be more efficient and drive toward lower carbon." And long-term: focusing on the transformative technologies "that we all dream about."

Susan explains the primary hurdle--or rate-limiting technology--for renewable energies like solar and wind is storage. "After about 200 years of very little progress in battery technology, right now there are almost two dozen new battery technologies under development at MIT that are very exciting," she says. "Anything from cell-sized storage that will power up your cell phone to very large grid-scale storage that truly will be game-changing for intermittent sources."

"One of the foundational premises of the energy initiative is that we can't choose a technology. Anyone who says they can doesn't know what they're talking about," Hockfield says. But as for other revolutionary breakthroughs that are likely to have a dramatic impact 20 to 30 years out, she says, "The great transformational technologies of the 20th century came out of the convergence between physics and engineering and that gave rise to electronics and computers and the information technology that we love today. Now added into that mixture are the life sciences--biology--and I think that will transform the way we do lots of things."

MIT Professors Angela Belcher and Paula Hammond are currently at work on two projects that give promise to this convergence. "They and their colleagues have demonstrated that they can basically synthesize batteries with benign lab strains of viruses. They're made at room temperature without toxic byproducts and have the same kind of power density as state-of-the-art lithium ion batteries. It's very exciting," says Susan. "And they recently had a paper in Nature demonstrating viruses that synthesize photovoltaics. These are just two examples of a world of biomanufacturing that will have big implications for energy, but really way beyond energy. If I had to guess, I think that is going to be the game-changer for the 21st century."

Beyond its technical prowess, MIT has a long history of advising the federal government on policy and Hockfield is clearly continuing that tradition. "We just released a study on the nuclear fuel cycle. If we don't have a policy around nuclear waste, nuclear is not going to be a long-term option. And another on natural gas, which is a tremendously important potential energy resource," she says. "It would be a tragedy if we were to go from buying oil from unstable and perhaps undependable nations to buying technology from unstable and possibly undependable nations, when we could create energy resources--and certainly energy technologies--ourselves."

And what about America's continued dependence on oil and related environmental and security challenges? "The good news is that the consciousness of the nation is now more evolved around the incredible dilemmas posed by our current energy use," says Hockfield. "But when we launched the MIT Energy Initiative in the fall of 2006, we had no confidence that the federal government would provide the kind of support for the basic research and early development that's required to really get technologies going. The Bush administration had not called this out as a priority."

Susan and her team pushed forward nonetheless. And by relying almost entirely on philanthropy and new partnerships with the private sector they still managed a swift start. "The Obama administration has taken a far more aggressive approach to the energy dilemma and has funded energy research at a higher level, and that's all to the good," she says. "My concern about federal funding is that it's episodic. When gas prices go up, federal funding goes up. When gas prices go down, funding drops. It's a roller coaster and the problem with a roller coaster is that it may be fun, but you always get back to the starting gate. Progress that we could have made--had we made sustained investments--simply has not been realized."

So how will future generations judge our efforts to address the challenge? "I hope that when looking back at what's happening at the beginning of the 21st century in the United States we will, in the fullness of time, see the building up of real enthusiasm and real commitment to changing the energy equation in this country," says Hockfield. "Right now, we're a long way from that at the federal level. And yet, there is tremendous commitment fed by the grassroots level and a significant commitment, I would say, at the level of industry. Everyone is trying to do what the United States has done in the past, and I think that's a great thing, but the United States has to use the advantages we've established to accelerate and lead into the future."

At a Glance
Hometown: Chappaqua, New York
Education: B.A. in Biology, University of Rochester. Ph.D. in Anatomy (and Neuroscience), Georgetown University School of Medicine. NIH Post Doctoral Fellow, University of California at San Francisco
Professional Highlights: Dean of the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, William Edward Gilbert Professor of Neurobiology and Provost at Yale University, President of MIT
Advice for Young Women: "If young women want to help invent the future--and change lives and change societies--there's no better way to do it than through science and engineering."

 

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