Nancy Hopkins on Jim Watson, Mentor
  Nancy Hopkins     Biography    
Recorded: 09 Apr 2001

Well, first of all, it’s not clear I would have discovered this science and fallen in love with it the way I did [without Jim Watson’s influence.] He made it so exciting. I don’t know what would have happened. But more than that I think that for women in my generation to consider that path was not an easy decision. I think without somebody like that encouraging you, I don’t know what would have happened. He so believed in me, it seemed, that it was something that there was no choice. And you were just going to do that. And he really insisted that I was going to do that. He said, “You know, you have to,” and I think he was right. I remember so well what he said: “You’re just like me. You have a one track mind.” It was true, I was obsessed with this science. I just really couldn’t sleep; I couldn’t think of anything else; it was so exciting.

As time has gone on, I have recognized even more how unusual he was because I was just one of many students for whom he did this. He made the careers of many, many students and postdocs and he didn’t just stand in front of a class and give a thrilling lecture, walk out, and that was all you saw of him. He was interested in his students and many, many dozens of them. He encouraged them, paid attention to their experiments, paid attention to their experiments after they left his lab, mentored their careers for years and years and years and he has remained a friend and mentor and colleague of these people throughout their lives. I must say, I have not been anywhere close to his equal in what I’ve done for other students. The more I have been a professor, the more I marveled at what he did for so many young people. When I teach, I try to always give as good a lecture as you could and convey your own excitement. But I think his ability to care for people over such a long period of time and in such a close way and at such a detailed level is very remarkable. I have seen it rarely in professors, I think. We all like to have and stay close to certain people for many years but the number of people he did it for is unusual.

I always found, until very recently, certainly, I always just agreed with him [Jim Watson]. He was the one who made sense, he always made sense to me and he always brought it back to where it belonged. Often I would go out and talk with other people and it just all seemed fuzzy and furry and then you’d came back and talked with Jim, it was just clear and precise and right on. Recently, I found that I have a disagreement with him about the nature of scientific enterprise, to some extent, and so we avoid this topic because, I think, we just would not agree on it. Because I usually agree with him just naturally most of my life about many things we would talk about.

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.