Uncomfortably, Hopkins Basks in Media Glow

Biologist who left during Summers’ speech defends her behavior

MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins ’64 is no stranger to media attention.

“I have been for one week at the center of a hurricane,” Hopkins said in an interview Saturday. “It’s like getting hit by a swarm of locusts.”

Over the last week, Hopkins has faced intense scrutiny for her decision to leave in the middle of University President Lawrence H. Summers’ speech at the National Bureau of Economic Research conference and for criticizing the comments to the media.

While some have attacked Hopkins for publicizing Summers’ remarks given at a private conference, she defended her decision to talk to the media, even though she says she had no intention of inspiring a media circus.

“I do not think I have [ever] heard of an academic conference that was off the record,” Hopkins wrote in an e-mail yesterday. “Nor did it cross my mind that the public comments of the president of Harvard should be kept secret.”

Hopkins received a similar burst of press attention in 1999 after a committee she chaired on the status of female faculty at MIT released a report demonstrating discrimination against female senior faculty members.

For ten years, in addition to scientific research, Hopkins has become one of the leading advocates for women in higher education.

“This is a dedication to future generations of women,” Hopkins says. “I knew that I was able to get a job because women who came before me were willing to work on this issue. So I knew someday my turn would come.”

Hopkins’ work has been heralded by the Clintons and women worldwide.


Hopkins says that her passion for research—she has worked on cancer and now investigates the developmental genes in zebra fish and their similarities to human genes—prevented her from realizing that she faced discrimination within her field.

“When you love science as much as I do, you just don’t want to be distracted from it.  You try to ignore these problems,” she says.

But after years of unequal treatment, she says the discrimination was too painful and demoralizing to ignore.

“I had to address it,” she says. “It didn’t occur to me I would be addressing it for anyone other than myself.”

She surveyed other women in MIT’s School of Science—and found that there were only 15 female senior faculty members, compared to 197 men. The survey led to the creation of a Committee on Women Faculty in 1995, tasked with studying gender discrimination at MIT, which Hopkins chaired.

After five years, the committee released its ground-breaking report, finding discrimination in resources ranging from salary to office size.

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