Nancy Hopkins on Responding to Inequalities
  Nancy Hopkins     Biography    
Recorded: 09 Apr 2001

I got together with other women from MIT and we tried to change the situation at MIT. We were very successful, I think, in doing so for ourselves, but we didn’t talk about it with anybody because we didn’t want people to think we were thinking about science in that way. We just wanted to fix the problem so that we could get back to being scientists like everyone else. But finally it went public when we wrote a report, and it ended up being—we just wrote a brief article about the work we’ve done on this issue at MIT and it became public knowledge and was covered by The New York Times and so forth. So it became common knowledge.

And Jim read the report that we wrote, which was really just this article for the faculty newsletter, describing the actual article and he said something very interesting to me, he said, “You know, Nancy, none of that’s true.” I said, “What do you mean it’s not true? Of course it’s true.” He said, “Well,” he said—I don’t know if I should exactly quote him on this point, but since we’re doing this for historical purposes I hope he—these were the words he said to me—I hope he doesn’t mind my repeating them. He said: “If you want to be a great scientist, you have to be a shit and women aren’t.” And I thought that was typical of Jim, really summed the problem up very accurately; and this is the point on which we profoundly disagree. I think it turns out that in Jim’s mind and minds of many people, this very aggressive behavior which is associated with excellence. And although it is a characteristic that we commonly find in people who are successful, merit and aggression are not identical, they are not one and the same. Merit comes in many different forms and I think that it’s our inability to recognize all those forms equally that is what discrimination really is. That was the surprising discovery I made. It’s one of the great scientific discoveries that I had made in my lifetime. So I disagree with Jim about this. But I am hoping he’ll come around to it because after all he was the first feminist I knew, in a sense. When I was young and he encouraged me to be a scientist, I asked—I remember—some of his postdocs, at the time, “Why me?” And they said, “Well, he would like to see a woman really make it to the top and he thinks you’re the one.” And I think he encouraged and encouraged Joan [Steitz], and he encouraged a number of his women—Jan Peru, myself—to become scientists. And as such, he was from that generation that really wanted to see women make it. He himself has been a great supporter of women and at the same time I think that we disagree about this other issue.

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.