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As an undergrad at Radcliffe College, Nancy Hopkins was considering a career in architecture until she attended a lecture given by James Watson, the codiscoverer of the structure of DNA. Then she reconsidered. Like architecture, molecular biology offered the opportunity to build something essential, magnificent, and lasting. Unlike architecture, it challenged her to unravel the excruciatingly complex mysteries that shroud the machineries of life. Hopkins thought about the two paths, and went with what she saw as the greater challenge.
Four decades later, Hopkins, now the Amgen, Inc., Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has explored more than a few mysteries. On Commencement morning, May 18, she will offer graduating seniors some clues to unraveling the mysteries of professional life, when she delivers the 2014 Baccalaureate Address at Marsh Chapel. She will later receive an honorary Doctor of Science at the All-University Commencement ceremony.
Hopkins, who doesn’t have a Facebook page, says she wouldn’t attempt to lecture college seniors about how to negotiate a world that is changing as fast as ours is, but she does hope to provoke her audience. “I will ask them to consider completing the social revolution in the roles of women and men in society that began in my generation, but whose conclusion will be up to them,” she says.
She says most scientists she knows would offer young people two pieces of advice: follow your passion, and know when to ignore people who tell you, “Oh, that will never work.”
Hopkins would add one more: don’t underestimate the importance of luck.
“I was lucky to come along when the fields of basic molecular biology, and later basic cancer research, were young fields that were about to explode,” she says. “I grabbed hold and was swept along in the great scientific revolution of molecular biology. It was good timing, and it was fantastic to have been a part of this science.”
While earning a PhD at Harvard, Hopkins worked to isolate the lambda phage repressor, examining the DNA of operator mutants and how various mutations affect a repressor protein’s ability to bind to DNA. At Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, where she worked with Watson, she probed the genetics of animal tumor viruses. In 1973, she was invited to join the faculty of MIT at the newly constructed Center for Cancer Research. There, she changed her research focus from DNA tumor viruses to RNA tumor viruses, which were then considered to be a likely cause for many cancers in humans. After several years of work, and many significant contributions, Hopkins began studying developmental genetics in zebra fish. Her laboratory developed the first successful method for making insertional mutagenesis work in a vertebrate model, which enabled her team to identify genes essential for zebra fish development, with implications for better understanding development in other species.
Outside the lab, Hopkins has been similarly fearless and influential. She is famous for walking out of a speech by Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, when he suggested that “intrinsic aptitude” might explain why there were relatively few high-achieving women in engineering fields. At MIT, her efforts toward gender equality fueled a university-wide examination of possible gender bias against women scientists, and she was named cochair of the first Council on Faculty Diversity at MIT, along with BU President Robert A. Brown, then MIT provost.
“I just wanted to be a molecular biologist,” says Hopkins, “but I was drawn into a historic social revolution involving changing roles of women in society. I learned why social change is so slow, watched how it comes about through enormous effort of a lot of people, and I got to watch an institution be changed, in considerable part by Bob Brown, who was then our provost.”
More information about Commencement can be found on the Commencement website.