Nancy Hopkins on Harvard Research with Jim Watson
  Nancy Hopkins     Biography    
Recorded: 09 Apr 2001

I went to those lectures and Jim was just a quarter of this course and it was a short spring semester course. He was one of four lecturers. So I went to his lectures and everyday I’d be there, the earliest first person in the room and everyday I would be there, waiting for him to appear and give the word. So then when his section ended, I knew I couldn’t live without this, so I tried to zoom to his lab and try to see if I could work in the lab with him. So I did that and he said yes. I had a little desk in the tiny little lab right next to his office. And there was a connecting door between the two and he would come flying in the door and say, “You want to have lunch?” and so forth. Then down the hall was his lab and the tearoom. So I became a part of the atmosphere of molecular biology as it was being done and discovered, right then and there in 1963 and ‘64, and that was how I got introduced to the world of molecular biology. It was overwhelming, as a young person seeing people making these discoveries and having meetings everyday where they were talking about the discoveries that were being made at the time. Because the central dogma was still being worked out. Can you imagine being alive then? Being where it was happening? As I said, it was beyond imagining, so it was thrilling!

Then the question of actually going on and actually having a career myself in science, that took quite a large mental leap, probably because for women in my generation, you know, we were really sent to college to become educated wives of Harvard men. That was really kind of it. And it was Jim who had the imagination to say, “You have to become a scientist! You are going to be a molecular biologist.” And I said, “Oh!” Of course, I wanted to. I couldn’t possibly imagine leaving this science, I couldn’t be away from it, but did not know what that would entail and what it would mean. He told me that I needed to go to graduate school and at that time, and really still, we had this rule that if you go to an undergraduate school, you ought to leave that school for graduate school. He told me that I should go to Yale, so fine, I went to Yale. But I wanted to be at Harvard because I didn’t really care about being at graduate school, I cared about working on a particular research problem and the only problem I wanted to work on was the isolation of the repressor. So I had to come back to Harvard so I could work on that problem because it was being done by two people at Harvard: Wally Gilbert and independently, Mark Ptashne. I had met Mark when I was an undergraduate and before he told me he was going to work on the repressor, I knew this guy was going to work on the repressor and I knew I wanted to work on it with him. So I went back to Harvard to work on the repressor. Again, I had just walked out of graduate school and worked as Mark’s technician for about a year and one day Jim came and said, “OK. You’ve had your fun, now you have to go to graduate school.” So I said, “OK,” and I signed up for graduate school and got my Ph.D. at Harvard.

Nancy Hopkins is a developmental biologist and the Amgen, Inc. Professor of Biology at MIT. Working under Jim Watson and Mark Ptashne, Hopkins earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1971. As a postdoctoral fellow she moved to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where she continued working under Watson researching DNA tumor viruses. In 1973 she joined the MIT faculty as an assistant professor in the Center for Cancer Research, where she researched the mechanisms of replication and leukemogenesis by RNA tumor viruses for 17 years.

Hopkins has also led an ongoing effort to end discrimination against women in science. In 1995 she was appointed Chair of the first Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Science at MIT, and in 2000 she was appointed Co-Chair of the first Council on Faculty Diversity at MIT. Hopkins co-authored the fourth edition of Molecular Biology of the Gene. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.