Thirty years ago, Yale Provost Susan Hockfield — then a junior at the University of Rochester — took a class in cell biology that convinced her to be a scientist. On Oct. 11, Hockfield returned to her alma mater to talk about her scientific and academic career and encourage others to follow the same path.
Hockfield went to Rochester, from which she graduated as a biology major in 1973, to receive the university’s Meliora Citation for Career Achievement, an honor given to school alumni who have excelled in their chosen fields. The event was part of Rochester’s innovation-themed “Meliora Weekend,” which combines homecoming, parents’ weekend and an alumni reunion.
Hockfield said she appreciated the university’s recognition of her academic accomplishments.
“It was a time to really think back to the events during my undergraduate days that really set the path for my career,” Hockfield said.
“Meliora,” the school’s motto, means “always better.”
Mary Jo Ferr, the director of Meliora Weekend, said the award is designed to honor graduates of the university who have “committed to making their chosen field really the best it can be.”
“We didn’t have an award that simply pointed to alumni who have done great things with their lives,” Ferr said. “It’s wonderful for students to be exposed to things that alumni have done.”
Ferr said recipients of the citation were nominated by staff members and alumni and then chosen by a committee. She said the committee selected Hockfield for her achievements both in her position as provost and in neuroscience.
In addition to serving as provost, Hockfield is the William Edward Gilbert Professor of Neurobiology at Yale. She primarily researches the development of the mammalian brain.
Ferr said around 6,000 people attended at least one of the weekend’s events, but many chose to remain outside instead of attending indoor events because of the pleasant weather. She said Hockfield’s award presentation was “well attended,” with about 100 spectators sitting in the audience.
Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor Michael Kanfer, who created effects for “Titanic” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” was the other recipient of the award this year. Ferr said the two guests represented a good juxtaposition, both geographically and in terms of their expertise — Hockfield representing the East Coast and science, Kanfer representing the West Coast and art.
“We definitely try to balance [the choice of winners],” Ferr said.
Rochester’s dean interviewed both Ferr and Kanfer about their career paths and then presented them with their awards — pieces of local Corning glass etched with the school’s seal and information about the citation.
Ferr said Hockfield told the audience about her career as a scientist and administrator. Hockfield also discussed her time at Rochester and how she believes the choices she made there shaped the direction of her life.
Hockfield said most of the questions students asked after the presentation were about her scientific research, since many students do not understand the provost’s role on campus.
This is the second year that Rochester has given out the award, Ferr said. In 2002, the recipients were then Novatel Wireless CEO John Major, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston CEO Cathy Minehan and Warner Bros. Television Vice President John Levey.
While Hockfield said later years, in graduate school and beyond, were more formative to her career than her time at Rochester, she said she appreciated the “great honor.”
“It was very moving,” Hockfield said.