Dean of the College of Science Ken Henderson
Dean of the College of Science Ken Henderson
Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

by Greg St. Martin

Ken­neth Hen­derson can point pre­cisely to the moment when his career spun in an exciting new direc­tion: a five-​​month industry place­ment at Merck in London prior to his senior year at the Uni­ver­sity of Strath­clyde, where the bud­ding Scotland-​​born scholar was studying chem­istry. So in a way it’s quite fit­ting that he’s now come to North­eastern, where inte­grating class­room learning with real-​​world pro­fes­sional expe­ri­ence through co-​​op is a way of life.

Hen­derson is the new dean of the Col­lege of Sci­ence, and a scholar of syn­thetic and struc­tural inor­ganic chem­istry. He comes to North­eastern from the Uni­ver­sity of Notre Dame where he served as senior assis­tant provost for inter­na­tion­al­iza­tion and as pro­fessor and chair of the Depart­ment of Chem­istry and Biochemistry.

We asked Hen­derson to share his vision for the col­lege, dis­cuss how his interest in sci­ence grew, and how he would advise stu­dents to make the most of their own co-​​op expe­ri­ences.

When you were younger, what piqued your interest in science?

I was always a nerdy kid. I was inter­ested in Star Wars and Star Trek. I read a lot of sci­ence fic­tion and fan­tasy novels, like Lord of the Rings. I was very curious. I was drawn to TV shows that were about life sci­ences, planets, and astronomy—anything that had to do with sci­ence. That interest con­tinued through high school and university.

The thing that really drove me in terms of my career direc­tion was a little bit dif­ferent. When I went to col­lege, I really thought I’d grad­uate and get a job. I inter­viewed for posi­tions in fine chem­i­cals and in the phar­ma­ceu­tical industry, and I was given offers as a chemist at the bachelor’s of sci­ence level. But I decided to pursue a PhD instead, based on two expe­ri­ences. One, I actu­ally did a co-​​op between my junior and senior years. It was a five-​​month place­ment at Merck in London. That was a trans­for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence that showed me what it was like to be a pro­fes­sional sci­en­tist in the industry. It taught me about the impor­tance of research in industry, and also the impor­tance of a PhD in career pro­gres­sion in science.

As a stu­dent, you don’t want to develop only into a cer­tain lane or type of skill set. The modern world requires people who are very fluid and mobile, both phys­i­cally and men­tally. The people who are most suc­cessful are the ones who can trans­late between dif­ferent skill sets.

Also, while I was working toward my final exam­i­na­tions, I felt there was a sig­nif­i­cant inte­gra­tion of knowl­edge that was starting to develop. I began to see chem­istry as a sub­ject rather than an indi­vidual series of iso­lated topics. That was really exciting.

Then the key ele­ment hap­pened during my PhD, when I started doing truly inde­pen­dent research. It was game over. I knew what I’d do for rest of my career. I was com­pletely excited and enthralled by sci­en­tific dis­covery. The thrill of being able to develop new sci­ence and uncover new knowl­edge was exhil­a­rating.

What was it that attracted you most to Northeastern?

There were sev­eral things that were very attrac­tive. One of the most impor­tant is the rapid rise and improve­ment of the uni­ver­sity at all levels. The increase in quality of the under­grad­uate pop­u­la­tion is tremen­dous and an amazing achieve­ment. Another factor is that the research pro­grams have been growing so rapidly, and the quality of the fac­ulty that has been recruited over the past 10 years has been fan­tastic. Another attrac­tive com­po­nent is coming to Boston, which is the intel­lec­tual cap­ital of the United States. If you’re an aca­d­emic, this is the place to be.

Another thing, which con­nects back to my own expe­ri­ence, is the expe­ri­en­tial learning for under­grad­uate stu­dents and the co-​​op pro­gram. That really matches my own expe­ri­ence. That’s some­thing I can talk about, in reality how impor­tant that was for me. It’s a highly inno­v­a­tive and for­ward thinking model of edu­ca­tion.

What advice would you give to North­eastern stu­dents about making the most of their co-​​op experiences?

The key ele­ment is not to just do it as a job, but to do it as a learning expe­ri­ence. Every day, every inter­ac­tion, you should be reflec­tive and in a learning-​​type mode con­stantly to review what’s going on. It’s not simply that you’re picking up tech­nical skills, but you’re actu­ally learning about how the world oper­ates or how that com­pany or unit actu­ally func­tions. And then, think about what your role is in it and what you’re learning. Ask for more respon­si­bility and for new expe­ri­ences, and really push the bound­aries of that expe­ri­ence so that you’re con­stantly pushing your­self out­side your com­fort zone.

Are there par­tic­ular skills or com­pe­ten­cies that are most impor­tant for all Col­lege of Sci­ence stu­dents, regard­less of their majors?

The word that comes to mind imme­di­ately is flex­i­bility. Some­body who is nimble, who is able to move in between areas of expe­ri­ence and ways of thinking is crit­ical. As a stu­dent, you don’t want to develop only into a cer­tain lane or type of skill set. The modern world requires people who are very fluid and mobile, both phys­i­cally and men­tally. The people who are most suc­cessful are the ones who can trans­late between dif­ferent skill sets. That’s why things like inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research and com­bined majors are becoming much more impor­tant and attrac­tive to stu­dents because they open up oppor­tu­ni­ties to be mul­ti­fac­eted.

You men­tioned the impor­tance of being inter­dis­ci­pli­nary. As dean, how will you create more oppor­tu­ni­ties to foster inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research among faculty?

Acad­emia is no dif­ferent than any other area of research activity. In research, there has been much more focus on large, impactful prob­lems in the world—things like human dis­ease, and water and envi­ron­mental sus­tain­ability. These are larger global prob­lems that require inter­dis­ci­pli­nary solu­tions. Over the past decade or so, there’s been much more focus on those prob­lems from a fun­da­mental point of view, including basic sci­ence and applied sci­ence. There has been much more focus put on building teams to address those problems.

A pas­sion of mine is under­grad­uate edu­cating and teaching. … The great thing about teaching, and this was a rev­e­la­tion to me when I started teaching, was that you get inspired by stu­dents, you get inspired by stu­dents’ curiosity, you get inspired by stu­dents’ enthu­siasm, and it’s infectious.

It’s the most exciting time ever to be a sci­en­tist. Part of my role is to develop those teams, and iden­tify areas of exper­tise. North­eastern has phe­nom­enal exper­tise in many areas, and one of my roles will be pulling those indi­vid­uals into teams across the uni­ver­sity, not just the Col­lege of Science.

One example where we’ve already done this is the Net­work Sci­ence Insti­tute. We already have the best people in the world at North­eastern and a tremen­dously strong PhD pro­gram in net­work sci­ence that involves mul­tiple col­leges and fac­ulty with joint appoint­ments. That is a really good model for us to look for other areas to do the same thing.

What are some of your short– and long-​​term goals for the college?


Our col­lege is only six years old, so one short-​​term goal I have is to develop an iden­tity for the col­lege. What is the col­lege really good at from an under­grad­uate edu­ca­tion point of view, where we can dif­fer­en­tiate our­selves, and from a research point of view?

As a long-​​term goal, the most impor­tant thing is that we’re a driver of research for the uni­ver­sity, not just for our col­lege. The world’s chal­lenges are too big. It’s impor­tant that we work together with other col­leges to be excel­lent in spe­cific areas. It’s about having suc­cess from col­lab­o­ra­tion and inte­gra­tion. It doesn’t come from building our own indi­vidual silo.

You were born in Scot­land and earned a bachelor’s degree and a doc­torate, both in chem­istry, from the Uni­ver­sity of Strath­clyde in the U.K. How did having a global mindset a factor in your career?

Through sci­ence, I’ve had the oppor­tu­nity to travel the world. I did my post­doc­toral work at Brown Uni­ver­sity. That was a trans­for­ma­tional expe­ri­ence because I had the oppor­tu­nity to study and work abroad. That expe­ri­ence opened up the world to me. I don’t think I’d have ever thought about leaving the U.K. if I hadn’t done that. I thought there was no reason I couldn’t work any­where in the world after doing that for two years. I agree with the mindset of the pres­i­dent that we want to have every stu­dent have a global expe­ri­ence, because it really does open up your mind to what your pos­si­bil­i­ties and hori­zons are.

I think sci­ence is a real pass­port to thinking beyond your own country of origin.

Another way to think about this, from a pro­fes­sional point of view, is that sci­ence is a global activity. As a research sci­en­tist, the people I work and interact with are from every corner of the planet. There’s nothing local about it. It’s an exciting envi­ron­ment to work in. So to me, there are no bound­aries between coun­tries or cul­tures; it’s inter­ests and working in dif­ferent loca­tions and dif­ferent cul­tures. I think sci­ence is a real pass­port to thinking beyond your own country of origin.

What are some of your inter­ests out­side academia?

I ran the Boston Marathon in 2015. I’ve run three marathons, though I don’t know if I’ll have time to train for another one in the near future. But I still do run on a reg­ular basis. Run­ning, I think, is a tremen­dous stress reliever, and dis­tance run­ning is a time to think. Boston is a great city to run in. I’ve already been run­ning down along the Charles River. It’s gorgeous.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on September 13, 2016.