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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...