Nancy Hopkins on Women in Science: The Future of Gender Equity
  Nancy Hopkins     Biography    
Recorded: 09 Apr 2001

There are days I believe we can make it and there are days when I think we misht go backwards. I think it is a very curious thing—this social progress occurs in some ways, the way scientific progress occurs. And that is, “Yes, we’re going forward!” If you look where women were 50 years ago and 25 years ago, there’s no question that we are making progress. But if you look on the shorter term, it seems sometimes so hard to change the thinking that you’re wondering if it’ll ever happen. So it’s difficult to reconcile these two views. We know we are going forward, but we see there is so far to go, even now, and I find it’s still difficult to reconcile those two things. It’s like science: we make this incredible progress say, understanding cancer, but we still can’t cure cancer, and it’s something like that. So I don’t know how long it will take. It seems so ridiculous; but then I took my own understanding of this problem, “If it took me a lifetime to figure it out, gosh, how could many people, who don’t live through it, understand it?” So I don’t know and it bothers me a lot because I want this problem to go away now.

It’s been extraordinary what had happened at MIT, and I think this is another example: six years or seven years ago, when we began this collaboration with the women faculty and MIT administration, and we were operating in total secrecy and didn’t want any one to know what we were doing; and now we were on the front page of The New York Times and we go around the country and we would talk about this with everybody. If we had said that could happen? We would have said, “It’s impossible!” It’s remarkable, the progress, and I do continue [working for it]. I actually have a part time job working with the administration within MIT now to try to address this problem so it doesn’t slide backwards. When this administration, this President, these women faculty leave, finally, that we won’t go backwards. We’ll go forwards. We’re trying to figure out how to change the system to make that happen.

And so it’s all very remarkable that’s happening, but what I’m finding out, what I’ve learned this year (I’ve been doing this for a few months, in these last six months, maybe) is how hard it is to make change, why social change is so slow. You think that highly educated, smart people, like professors in a university—now we’ve announced this problem: Hey, why haven’t they fixed it already? And you see that it’s not easy to make that change. From understanding there is a problem, seeing the problem, identifying and naming the problem, which was a major step forward, to fixing that problem.

What you see is that progress is made by all very hard work. And when you stop doing the work, you stop the progress. It stops right there and begins to slide so you have to keep on going.

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.