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At the Core of Discovery

Research AVP Phil Hockberger loves technology, but he’s hardwired for more than hardware

Phil Hockberger

Phil Hockberger loves tools, particularly the ones with dense acronyms or yard-long polysyllables in Northwestern’s 60-plus university “core” or shared facilities that enable transformative discovery in chemistry, biomedicine, engineering, and more. Photo by Eileen Molony

Phil Hockberger is a “gear guy” at heart. He would have felt at home tinkering in Edison’s lab, or in Bell Labs where he did, in fact, work as a research associate for six years, building instruments including the first CCD-based microscopic imaging system (CCD chips were invented at Bell). Today, he oversees Northwestern’s most high-end scientific facilities and helps plan for their sustained growth.

The assistant vice president for research grew up in Calumet City, an industrial community in southeast Cook County where most of the kids circa 1970 went on to work in the steel mills that still clung to the local waterways then. Hockberger, one of six sons, would pursue a different path, one that integrated chemistry, electrical engineering, biomaterials, and neuroscience. His family home was part of a tiny, two-block “island” of professionals — physicians, dentists, attorneys, businesspeople. His father was a civil engineer; his mother a college voice major. Neighbors included the city’s district attorney and Joey Mansueto, who would found Morningstar, the investment research firm. The Hockberger’s babysitter lived two houses down; that was Carole Browe (Segal) ’60, future cofounder of Crate and Barrel.

This environment gave Hockberger the foundation that would allow him to indulge a talent for math, an affinity for Italian Renaissance art, and an interest in exploring big questions at the intersection of science and spirituality. But he’s never lost his passion for the well-designed shiny object.

Hockberger loves tools, particularly the ones with dense acronyms or yard-long polysyllables in Northwestern’s 60-plus University “core” or shared facilities that enable transformative discovery in chemistry, biomedicine, engineering, and more. This is the world he’s inhabited since 2009, when he joined the Office for Research as its first director of core facilities. Since 2014 he has been executive director of research facilities, with a range of related strategic responsibilities, such as planning, maintaining, and developing the University’s state-of-the-art science spaces. These efforts have helped to make Northwestern a national leader in the field today, although Hockberger was pioneering the model for this infrastructure at the Feinberg School of Medicine back in the 1990s.

High-Impact Tools for Discovery

Interested in molecular visualization at the atomic level? Then check out single-particle cryo-electron microscopy in Northwestern’s Structural Biology Facility. Taking advantage of powerful new gene editing techniques made possible by CRISPR/Cas9? The MiSeq benchtop sequencing system in the Next-Generation Sequencing Facility (NUSeq) will let you screen your products. Need to determine the chemical structure of small molecules that you hope may yield the next blockbuster drug? Book some time with the triple-quadrupole mass spectrometry system available in the Integrated Molecular Structure Education and Research Center (IMSERC).

High-tech instruments often come with a steep price tag and even steeper learning curve, which is why they are organized in an affordable fee-for-service way to make them accessible to any researcher from Northwestern (and external customers), while also providing expert support to help investigators understand how best to employ these technologies. The facilities, which are located on both the Evanston and Chicago campuses, as well as in partnership with Argonne National Laboratories and Northwestern Memorial Hospital, allow breakthrough discovery to occur and help to attract some of the world’s best scientists.

“A core is a pivotal and essential part of the research ecosystem, one that facilitates interdisciplinary research and provides critical resources that enable new and emerging technologies,” says Hockberger, highlighting aspects of the formal definition that he and his core facilities counterparts from around the country have recently articulated. “It’s a lab, it offers expertise and state-of-the-art instrumentation and services, including experimental design and data analysis.”

“Technique development” is the term Hockberger uses to describe an important part of his role, and the role of core facilities at Northwestern. While new tools are designed periodically, optimizing existing technologies to make them useful to investigators is vital.

“So many instruments are not designed in a way that lets you just put in your sample and get results out of the machine. It’s not like that!” he says. For instance, in the Biological Imaging Facility (BIF), operations director and cell biologist Jessica Hornick has had to find ways to help materials scientists obtain imaging data on samples that may or may not transmit light. Developing solutions to visualize these materials on a microscope presents significant challenges, but “that’s the kind of problem solving that the core directors and the core scientists do,” says Hockberger.

A neurobiologist by training, Hockberger earned his PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1982, at a time when neuroscience was coming into its own, attracting faculty from across disciplines. These included electrical engineers like his dissertation adviser John Connor, and developmental neuroanatomists like Bill Greenough, an early explorer of brain plasticity, who was also on his thesis committee. Before this, though, Hockberger was still considering where to fully invest his talents. He earned a master’s degree from Southern Illinois University in four quarters, designing a neuroanatomy project focused on histological analysis of the traumatized brain. Encouraged by a faculty mentor in Carbondale, he ended up at Stanford where 18 months of research with mentor Klaus Bensch paid off with the publication of Hockberger’s first paper in the journal Cancer.

“In that paper, I was the tissue culturist growing tumor cells,” he says. “We were interested in the ultrastructure of the cells, so I learned electron microscopy.” This experience launched his fascination with technology.

At Urbana, Hockberger pursued another interest that began a dozen years earlier, when he spent a summer as an orderly in the psychiatric ward of Our Lady of Mercy Hospital in Dyer, Indiana. “Patients suffered from schizophrenia, depression, and lots of neuroses,” he recalls. “Brain behavior became really interesting to me.” Soon after, unfortunately, he got an even more intimate look at neurodegenerative devastation when his mother died from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) during his senior year in college. “It was a fascinating and tragic disease,” he says quietly.

The $6,000 CD Writer

When Hockberger arrived as a faculty member in Northwestern’s Department of Physiology in 1987, the underlying concept of a core facility was not much different than what it is for today’s facilities. It was an idea inspired by the original shared facility — the library, a central repository where scholars could access rare or expensive research materials, or materials that they only needed infrequently.

Hockberger developed two core facilities at the medical school, the Digital Darkroom (1994) and the Multi-Photon Microscopy Core (2004); the latter would eventually garner federal funding and become a leading site for development of this technology. The Darkroom served its purpose and was shuttered in 1998, after everyone transitioned to digital media. In its time, though, it was a catalyst ushering in a new way of storing, accessing, and disseminating research data.

“Back then, I bought a CD writer that was $6,000,” Hockberger remembers. “It was $2,000 for the hardware, $2,000 for the backup memory device, and another $2,000 for the software, called Toast. Within five years, it cost $100 on a PC.”

But during those five years, no one else at the University had these tools, he says, and there was broad interest in using them. So Hockberger volunteered to create the core, along with Kevin McKenna, a biomedical engineer within the physiology department. “We were the natural choice to build the Darkroom. We’d been teaching a digital imaging processing course on campus and had worked with students across both campuses and saw the need.”

What counted as “high tech” 20 years ago seems quaint by modern comparison: ZIP drives and CD drives; film recorders and slide scanners; wide-format 1800-dpi poster printers. And yet these tools were crucial for about a five-year period in the 1990s when faculty were making the jump from analogue tools to digital ones.

The Darkroom was home to 18 workstations in all, including dye sublimation color printers and a Bio-Rad digital densitometer, which allowed a researcher to scan a gel and make a logarithmic-to-linear conversion of the results, enabling quantitative analysis of two-dimensional gels.

“It was a critical and very popular facility,” says Hockberger.

Core Career Architect

Then, as now, it’s not just the impressive gear that attracts Hockberger’s interest. He is equally determined to help create a new professional path for those looking to make a difference in managing these core facilities. He’s traveled the country delivering presentations and serving as a spokesperson for career development, including as a founding member of the Midwest Association of Core Directors, a regional chapter of the 900-member-strong Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities (ABRF). The ABRF honored Hockberger earlier this year for his “exceptional service to the organization and the shared resources community.”

Hockberger’s efforts stem from his conviction that core facilities, and the talent to run them well, will continue to propel scientific progress. “Cores offer an exciting career opportunity for scientists who are looking to make a difference, and I’ve become passionate about this mission,” he says.

Colleagues like Andrew Ott agree. “Phil has shifted the focus from cores being a common space to hold instrumentation and perform routine services to it being a resource where highly skilled scientists add significant value to the research enterprise,” says Ott, current director of core facilities and IMSERC. “Phil invests much more time mentoring core facilities staff members, teaching them to understand their role and value and to provide education on the business principles required to run a successful core.” Technology is constantly changing, Ott adds, and so having the right people in core facilities to identify those changes and meet the evolving research needs of Northwestern scientists is imperative.

In his drive to professionalize cores, Hockberger spends a lot of time educating others about the importance and potential of these facilities. Though self-effacing, he’s an effective public speaker and “ambassador,” comfortable in front of an audience and able to distill complex ideas into more straightforward, engaging presentations. The same skills allowed him to teach adult education courses in the Chicago suburbs for more than a decade, producing classes that melded his interests in science and faith. (Titles included “How to Think about God,” “Christianity in a Scientific World,” “Science vs. Religion,” but also other topics, such as “The Art of Tragic Comedy” and “The Italian Renaissance: Portal into the Modern World.”)

Hockberger also draws inspiration and insight from his older brother, Robert, who has made major contributions to the creation of emergency medicine as a coherent field. Some of the same kinds of frameworks — establishing board exams and certifications, creating societies and professional associations — may help core facilities develop further.

“There’s a whole infrastructure, a whole set of questions to answer regarding how you turn this into a true career path, where people say ‘I’m a core scientist’ and people know what that is,” says Hockberger. “Business training and leadership is a piece of it, and so are incentives. We are working on policies and procedures for the field and for Northwestern to make this happen.”

So, of the dozens of core facilities at Northwestern, what’s Hockberger’s favorite? Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of them.

“If I see something shiny, I’m there! I remember the first time I saw a molecular beam epitaxy at Bell Labs — all these vacuum valves — and I was like ‘what is that?’ Every lab I walk into, I go straight for the instruments and ask how they work. It’s not any one tool; it’s the entire world of these technologies that drew me into this field. At Northwestern, I’m like a kid in the candy shop.”

By Matt Golosinski