Neuroscientist Susan Hockfield—the first female president of MIT—on women in science, living batteries, and the coming biotech revolution
When the neuroscientist Susan Hockfield became the 16th president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in December 2004, the news made waves—and not just because Hockfield was the first woman to earn the top job. Hockfield was also the first life scientist to run what is the world’s foremost engineering institution. That might have seemed like a set up for a culture clash—biology is the study of life, and life is messy, while engineering strives for mechanical precision.
But, as Hockfield, who stepped down from her position in 2012, points out, biology has more in common with engineering than you might expect. Just as the physical world is made up of components that can be analyzed and engineered, so is life itself, thanks to the groundbreaking discoveries of molecular biology. And just as our ability to engineer the physical world led to the great innovations of the 20th century, our growing ability to engineer biology opens the door to new inventions that could help us tackle epic challenges like climate change.
In her forthcoming book The Age of Living Machines: How Biology Will Build the Next Technology Revolution, Hockfield highlights some of those new innovations, including engineered viruses that can grow organic batteries and water filters that depend on a protein found in the human body. Hockfield spoke with OneZero about the convergence of biology and engineering, the risk that America could lose its scientific leadership, and the challenge of being a woman in science.
OneZero: In The Age of Living Machines you discuss what you call Convergence 1.0, the convergence between physics and engineering that drove so many of the innovations of the 20th century. You describe Convergence 2.0, the convergence between biology and engineering, that we’re experiencing now. What makes the new convergence different from the past, and how is it poised to create the innovations we need in the 21st century, especially around sustainability and climate change?
Susan Hockfield: Convergence 1.0 was the foundation for technology’s transformation of the 20th century. Electronics wasn’t an industry in 1900 because we didn’t understand the components of the physical universe. Once those were discovered, they were picked up by engineers and used to create the extraordinary digital world we are now living in.
We didn’t understand the components of biology, however, until the molecular biology revolution in the middle of the 20th century. Once the biology parts list was elucidated, engineers began to use those parts to invent all kinds of new technologies. Consider that of the 10 top-selling drugs in 2017, seven were biologics. Biologics are relatively new kinds of drugs that come from understanding how nucleic acids carry information, in DNA and RNA, and is then translated into proteins. Now that we know how proteins are made, we can manipulate them for particular uses, such as drugs. It also helps us understand the cellular processes that undergird all of biology.
The biology parts list is transforming not just biomedicine. As I describe in the book, engineers are using biological parts to construct entirely new technologies. We’ll have more than 9.7 billion people on the planet later this century. To successfully manage that, we’re going to have to get better at a lot of different technologies.
Where do you see that convergence of biology and engineering making the biggest difference?
Sustainable energy is probably chief among them. While we love the idea of alternative energies, like solar and wind, most alternative energies rely on energy storage, meaning batteries. Current battery manufacturing is energy intensive and produces a lot of toxic byproducts. One technology I highlight comes from the laboratory of Angela Belcher at MIT. She has figured out how to re-engineer benign strains of viruses so that they can collect and organize battery components and build batteries at room temperature without toxic byproducts. The fundamental idea is to use nature’s genius to solve our problems. Why can’t we use the kinds of tools that nature has used to make the technologies we need?
Another pressing problem is water. We don’t currently have enough fresh water to meet the global demand, and our water purification technologies are largely the same distillation and filtration processes we’ve used for thousands of years. But it turns out that biology provides an exquisite way to filter water: a protein water channel discovered by Peter Agre at Johns Hopkins University.
Our cells, and those of most animals and plants, make a water channel protein that is selective for water, providing a way to separate water from contaminants. A company near Copenhagen, called Aquaporin A/S, is actually using that water channel protein to build better water filters.
Many environmentalists argue that we have the technologies today to solve climate change and other sustainability challenges, but we’re missing political will. But you seem to be arguing that we still need major innovations as well.
Absolutely. Of course, we need greater political will to move to a less carbon-intensive energy future, but we also need political will to translate these amazing new technologies into real-world applications. Today’s technologies are not sufficient to convert our current fossil fuel intensive energy use to a dramatically less carbon intensive system. I strongly believe that we can develop the needed new technologies, but we don’t yet have them in hand.
One of the wonderful changes over the course of the last 50 years has been the reduction in poverty around the world. As people rise out of poverty, they naturally want a lifestyle that is more energy intensive. They’d like to have refrigerators; they would like to drive automobiles (or have self-driving automobiles). They would like to enjoy better food. All these features of a better lifestyle are energy intensive, and we have to figure out how to provide not just lower carbon intensive energy for a growing population, but for a growing population that we should hope will enjoy higher economic status.
You note the decline in U.S. government funding of research over recent decades, at least as a percentage of GDP, even as other countries like China are doubling down on that kind of research funding. Is U.S. scientific leadership at risk?
I think we are at risk. We’re not at risk tomorrow, but we’re playing a long game, and our ability to continue to compete is at risk. Countries around the world enormously admire what the United States has accomplished since the end of World War II: We’ve built new kinds of research infrastructure that have driven our economic growth. China is investing massively, and other countries are too, to achieve this kind of innovation and economic success. The U.S. needs to think seriously about building the path to our future in ways that will continue to provide the fundamental discoveries that translate into new technologies and new industries. It’s not our birthright. It’s a strategy we have invested in successfully, and I think we need to double down on those investments.
We’ve also seen a tightening of immigration in recent years. How does that impact science?
A tremendous amount of brainpower has come from new arrivals into the United States. Immigration has been our nation’s perpetual source of talented and ambitious citizens-to-be. More than 50 percent of U.S. graduate students in engineering and science come from outside the U.S.; at MIT, more than 40 percent of our graduate students in engineering and science are international.
With that many international students studying science and engineering in the U.S., it won’t surprise you that more than 40 percent of the MIT faculty were born outside the United States, and in our school of engineering, that number is 52 percent. These are people who came to the United States with the ambition of being part of our nation’s fantastic research, teaching, and product development enterprise, and we have benefited enormously from them. One would not want to put that source of our future strength at risk. We should be doing everything in our power to make the United States the destination for the best and brightest from around the world
You note that private investors have often preferred to focus their funding on lower-cost software projects, where they can get a faster return on their money, rather than harder investments in harder technology, like energy or materials. How do we change that and get money channeled toward the big challenges we face as a society?
The kinds of technologies I write about are often called “Tough Tech,” meaning they take a long time and a lot of money to get to market. I’m not an economist, but it’s pretty clear that as a nation we currently don’t privilege investments for any period longer than a year or two. I think we should think about how to adjust our financial incentives to encourage long-term investments. These are the investments that lead to building a manufacturing base in new industries, and there is so much good that would be returned to our communities and our nation if we were to get this right. We should be finding all kinds of ways to encourage the development of new technologies here in this country and keeping those technologies here all the way through production and manufacturing.
One of the most important emerging fields is artificial intelligence, and much of the most cutting-edge research is being done by big private companies like Google and Facebook, rather than public entities like universities or the government. Does that raise any concerns in your mind about how that research will be directed and how it will it be used?
I would say there are pluses and minuses. The 20th century convergence of physics and engineering that produced the computer and information industry happened in universities and in government research labs of course. But a lot of it also happened in industry labs like Bell Labs and IBM. These were fantastic founts of discovery, and they were good at turning those discoveries into products. Of course, industry research tends to be more on the D (development) side than the R (research) side, which has had an enormous impact on the acceleration of great ideas moving into the marketplace.
We can’t be entirely sanguine that access to research in the private domain does not match the access that we, in the academy, are compelled to provide. But there’s certainly ample history to demonstrate the critical importance of industrial R&D bringing new technologies to the marketplace.
One of the major challenges you identify is how we will meet the food demands of nine billion plus people by midcentury without using significantly more farmland. That means more agricultural productivity, and some of the techniques you identify involve genetic engineering. There’s obviously significant public opposition to genetically modified crops in the U.S. and elsewhere. Is that opposition misguided in your mind?
Humans have been manipulating plant genes for a very, very long time. Our ancestors who first started picking up plants from the wild and cultivating them in their local plots were gene engineers—they just didn’t know that it was genes they were manipulating. I know there’s a lot of anxiety about the genetic engineering and genetic modification of plants. But I think it’s being done in a way that is safe, with enormous oversight.
Last year, the National Academies released a report that found that many of these techniques are actually beneficial to the environment and certainly beneficial to populations that get to enjoy new crops that may be more resistant to drought and to pests and that can feed people who might otherwise not have access to sufficient food.
I think it’s important for people to understand that the use of these new technologies is critical for providing enough food for the growing population on Earth. We’re feeding many more people per acre than we ever have in the history of humankind, and we simply must continue that trend because, without crop improvements, we simply can’t farm enough land to produce the food we need for the growing population.
While one view holds that we should use antique techniques to make food, you generally don’t use antique techniques for our cars, for example, except maybe as a hobby. It just makes perfect sense, I think, to continue to evolve these technologies as rapidly as we can, so that people all over the world can have access to sufficient, and sufficiently nutritious, food.
Do you feel optimistic about our future as a species, our future as a country, as a world, when it comes to meeting the scale of the challenges we face?
In the book, I offer Thomas Malthus (and his 1798 dismal forecast) as an example of earlier Cassandras who forecast the demise of our species and our civilization. But I am optimistic that, as in the past, new technologies are in development that will make it possible for over nine billion people to not just survive but thrive on the planet.
One of my most serious concerns is whether we can rally around a national ambition, one that needs to be articulated for us to drive toward the positive future I see as well within our reach. I grew up under the shadow of Sputnik. While that event was terrifying for our nation, for me as an elementary school student it opened up untold opportunity and untold possibility for what science could accomplish.
Of course it’s important to be realistic about threats, but it’s also very, very important to muster our resources to our greater glory. Not just our intellectual resources, but also our emotional resources, to imagine a future that could be better than the one we’re living in today.
Last year you co-authored an article in Science highlighting the issue of sexual harassment in sciences and academia. It cited one survey from the U.S. National Academies that found that more than 50 percent of women faculty and staff at academic institutions reported experiencing sexual harassment. What impact has that ongoing harassment had on their careers and on how science is done in the U.S.?
To sideline any group through any kind of discrimination or harassment is just an enormous waste of talent. And it is deeply unfair to those individuals. I hate squandered resources. I think that one of the important problems we all have to address is how do we call on all the people who want to participate and give them the best possible chance to succeed?
We have opened up our educational system so that women can participate. I think it’s just an unconscionable loss, and frankly, it’s just wrong to discourage their equal participation. I think we could amplify our nation’s productivity if we were to level the playing field by stopping the harassment and subtle (and not so subtle) discrimination that drives people away, people who could otherwise be part of the solution.
Speaking of solutions, what does the scientific community need to do to address this problem? And is there any evidence that work is actually being done to address it?
I think facing up to it is the first thing to do. The second thing to do is to say that we’re not going to tolerate it, that this just isn’t going to happen. The National Science Foundation has a new policy that makes a finding of sexual harassment a criteria for not funding someone or for terminating funding. That’s a powerful message. Universities, as well as funding agencies, need to have processes that allow people to come forward with complaints and adjudicate them in appropriate ways.
We are making progress. We’re not yet where we need to be, but I think that the increased visibility over the last several years is going to change the game.
Date: March 05, 2019