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On 20 espressos a day, provost fuels Harvard initiatives for women, science

Steven E. Hyman knows a thing or two about addiction.

Sure, Harvard’s provost has spent the better part of his more than 20 years in academic psychiatric and neurobiological research studying addiction and the brain.

He did spend 5 years as director of one the nation’s most prestigious centers for research on brain diseases, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). And yes, he does teach a freshman seminar on addiction.

But Hyman—the University’s top executive and academic officer after President Lawrence H. Summers—is intimate with the concept of addiction for another reason: his hyper-packed schedules are fueled by 20 espressos a day.

The espressos are his “medication,” says Hyman, who has a well-used espresso machine in his office.

Hyman has been in overdrive ever since he was appointed by Summers in the fall of 2001 to fill the vacant position of provost. A psychiatrist by training, Hyman had spent more than 15 years at Harvard-affiliated hospitals and at the Harvard Medical School (HMS) before leaving the University to become NIMH director in 1996.

Since his return to Harvard in 2001, Hyman has used a consensus-building leadership style honed in academia and the lab to quietly push through dramatic changes at Harvard after only three years on the job.  

Hyman says he prefers staying under the radar—a marked contrast to his high-profile boss.

“I have to say I’ve enjoyed keeping a fairly low profile and working,” Hyman says of his tenure at Harvard, noting that he drew much more attention at NIMH. “I spent a lot of time in that world in the paper, on TV, in hearings. I liked it just fine, but I actually prefer just working and not doing a lot of ceremonial things.”

Hyman says his typical day begins at about 5:30 a.m., usually reading The New York Times and The Boston Globe sports section while on his exercise bike.

He follows this with a breakfast meeting with a faculty member, and he habitually meets with four or five other professors before the day is over.

The provost calls it a night around 6:30 p.m., when he goes home to cook dinner for his children, aged 8, 12, and 16, and answers e-mail for a couple of hours before going to bed.

Hyman is married to HMS Professor of Medicine Barbara E. Bierer, who was in Hyman’s medical school class.

Hyman’s nose-to-the-grindstone attitude has meant that the provost’s office is in charge of more than ever before.

With the development of the University’s campus of the future in Allston and expansion of science high up on the central administration’s agenda, the demands on Hyman’s time will likely increase. In an interview last month, Summers credited Hyman with having “upgraded the position of provost” at Harvard and suggested that the provost’s office should be expanded.

The central administration has hired the consulting group McKinsey and Co. to advise Summers and Hyman on how to best restructure the position.

“The central administration is really too small,” Hyman says. “We really want advice as to how best to approach certain complex tasks effectively but without getting bloated.”

The provost’s office is still reviewing the report, according to Hyman’s assistant.

SECOND IN COMMAND

Despite his professed preference for the quiet life, Hyman may be forced into the spotlight soon as the development of science in Allston gains momentum.

Summers has made interdisciplinary science one of the top priorities of his tenure, but his non-science background means that Hyman spends a lot of his time implementing the details of the team’s vision.

“I’m a scientist, and Larry set out to find someone with complimentary academic interests,” Hyman said in an interview in his tidy office last November, reclining in an armchair with one foot on the glass table in front of him, his cell phone on one hip and a PDA on the other. Pictures of his three children decorate his bookshelf.

Greg P. Gasic, an instructor at HMS and editor of the scientific journal Neuron, to which Hyman has been a contributor, calls the Summers-Hyman relationship “synergistic.”

Hyman “puts the flesh on Summers’ vision because Steve is closer to the natural sciences,” Gasic says.

“I do spend more time with scientists,” Hyman says. “In terms of schools, I certainly spend more time with the Medical School and the School of Public Health than Larry. He spends more time with the Business School and the Law School.”

Hyman chairs the Allston Science and Technology task force, which will determine what science projects and departments will move to Allston.

Like Summers, Hyman believes that the future of science will be the “very substantial breakdown in the insularity of departments.”

“The most time is still spent at this point on vision, where are we going, what are our priorities, how do we galvanize the faculty,” Hyman says of Allston planning. “At the same time, if we don’t focus on the mechanics of how this is going to work, we’re going to really disappoint our faculty and our students.”

His science background has also helped Hyman with one of the first major changes he made as provost—overhauling the structure of the University’s mental health and counseling services.

The Bureau of Study Council and University Health Services (UHS) Mental Health Services were consolidated under one roof, following the recommendation of the Student Mental Health Task Force that Hyman convened along with Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71.

The Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response and the soon-to be created alcohol “czar” are also now under this office.

Paul Barreira, director of the new office—called the University Counseling, Academic Support and Mental Health Services—credits Hyman with the more streamlined structure.

“Basically the entire structure as it now exists—which is fairly unique across colleges and universities—this is directly attributable to his leadership,” Barreira says.

“Steve is very smart, extremely perceptive,” he says. “He really gets to the heart of the matter quickly and is decisive.”

DR. HYMAN GOES TO WASHINGTON

Hyman took on the position of provost fresh out of six transformative years at NIMH, one of the 11 National Institutes of Health (NIH). Hyman, according to colleagues, was a precocious NIMH director, taking the helm in 1996 at the age of 44.

“The choice of Steve was only unusual in that he was relatively young, but he had incredible credentials,” says Harold E. Varmus, who as NIH director helped recruit Hyman to lead NIMH. “He was highly articulate, very energetic, and popular in the scientific community.”

Many people who worked with Hyman at NIMH credit him with overhauling the institute’s mission by focusing multidisciplinary research on mental disorders such as brain diseases, rather than on the social or environmental circumstances that might contribute to such disorders.

This sea change in NIMH focus led outside mental health researchers, funded in part by NIMH, to shift their focus as well.

“He really raised the quality of the neuroscience research supported by NIMH,” says Alan Leshner, who was acting director of NIMH in the early 90s and director of the National Institute for Drug Abuse, also within NIH, when Hyman was at NIMH. “But he also imposed a much higher standard on the clinical research. He wanted people to develop treatments for mental disorders that were evaluatable rather than believable.”

Hyman “transformed the Institute...by convincing hundreds of people to go in a new direction,” according to Eric J. Nestler, who is chairman of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and has collaborated with Hyman.

Colleagues say that at NIMH, Hyman was known for not tolerating “foolishness” or “mushy science,” which earned him a reputation for tough intellectual standards.

“The one thing that he has sometimes been accused of is not being kind and gentle enough,” Nestler says. “Personally, I think anytime anyone who has been offended by Steve should have been offended—it’s part of his effectiveness. Sometimes leaders are too kind and gentle and nothing gets done.”

Leshner attributes Hyman’s success at changing the course of NIMH to his leadership style.

“I suspect the people who were quite weak researchers were very threatened by him,” Leshner says. “Did everybody love every day of it? Probably not. But the place was better for him.”

Hyman’s time at NIMH may have prepared him for the kind of consensus-building inherent in a position like that of the provost, some former colleagues say.

“It gave him experience in diplomacy, tolerance for turf and over the course of the time he was at NIH, he grew into someone who is able to recognize and respect diverse perspectives,” says Leshner. “That’s why I think he’d be a good provost.”

RENAISSANCE MAN

Before starting at HMS, Hyman graduated from Yale in 1974 with a degree in philosophy and the humanities. He then attended the University of Cambridge as a Mellon scholar in the history of science.

“Steve is atypical of neuroscientists,” says Hans C. Breiter, assistant professor at HMS and a former student of Hyman’s. “He has a strong interest in economics and philosophy. He has a real genuine intellectual curiosity that is very broad.”

Hyman says he tries to “cling to bits of academic life,” teaching his freshman seminar on addiction every year and lecturing in a neurobiology course at HMS a few times a semester.

As a lecturer at MGH and McLean Hospital in the 80s, Hyman was selected by students as Best Teacher four times.

“The medical students generally have very positive comments about his lectures,” says Edwin J. Furshpan, research professor of neurobiology at HMS, who adds that Hyman was not afraid to swear occasionally in lecture. “He was strongly admired at the medical school.”

Student in his freshmen seminar—with whom he met for three hours every week last semester—also laud Hyman’s teaching.

“He was very open,” says Nadia A. Mohamedi ‘08, a student in the seminar. “He would correct us if we were wrong, but he always got even more excited if someone disagreed with him. He’d be like, ‘Oh yeah? Why do you feel that way?’”

—Staff writer May Habib can be reached at habib@fas.harvard.edu.