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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.