Recorded: 09 Apr 2001
I have worked in three fields, and I had just extraordinary experiences in all three of them. I think the high point of the first one was when I was actually a technician. I worked with Mark Ptashne and with my hands, I did the experiment that showed that repressor bound to DNA. Mark and I were doing it together, but he went to a seminar and when he came back, there were the results I had graphed on a piece of paper [the results from the isotope counter]. So we did that together, of course, but it was a moment that I never forgot.
Then I, for my thesis, did the genetics of operators. It was a lot of fun, so I can remember these things. Then I was a retrovirologist and there were several discoveries there, about how a certain part of the virus made the virus able to cause a certain type of leukemia. That was a thrilling moment—it’s surprising. You remember these things as “Oh! Oh! Oh! Such a wonderful moment!” So many years go by but these moments stand out.
And I think the most gratifying one have been the ones we are doing now, because it was a very long and improbable thing, and that was that we would develop a method that would make it possible to find a large number of the genes that you need to make an animal. We are cloning them, one by one by one, and putting them in bottles on the shelf. We are going to end up with the pieces that are needed to make an animal. I think part of it is to have lived so long in molecular biology, to have had a whole career, and to imagine when we started that somebody could do this experiment. It was not conceivable! And to see it become a possibility, then to do it in your own laboratory. It’s been a life not many people have. I’m very grateful.
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.