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.