Nancy Hopkins, a molecular biologist who made major discoveries in cancer genetics, became an unlikely activist in her early 50s. She had always believed that if you did great science, you would get the recognition you deserved. But after years of humiliation—including being snubbed for promotions and finding out that her lab was smaller than her male counterparts—she realized that her beloved Massachusetts Institute of Technology did not value female scientists. So, measuring tape in hand, Hopkins collected the data to prove her point. In The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science, former Boston Globe reporter Kate Zernike tells Hopkins’s story, which led to M.I.T.’s historic admission of discrimination against its female scientists in 1999.

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Nancy Hopkins:  I thought, that’s okay, if you’re good enough, you will overcome them with your great discovery, and then nobody will question you. And I was wrong. 

It took me 15 years to be certain that all other women were discriminated against, and I still couldn’t conclude it for myself. It took another five, so it took 20 years. And I gotta say that the moment I realized it was the worst moment of the whole thing. You realize you’d been fooling yourself in a way nobody had ever seen you as a full participant in this system that you loved and had given your life to, in a way, and felt, it was your life, that people saw you somehow differently.

Katie Hafner: I’m Katie Hafner. Welcome to Lost Women of Science Conversations, where we talk with people who have discovered and celebrated female scientists in books, poetry, film and the visual arts.

Today we’re discussing the book “The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, And The Fight For Women In Science” by Kate Zernike. The book tells the story of Nancy Hopkins, a molecular biologist who discovered her love of science at 19 in 1963. She earned her PhD at Harvard, trained with two pioneers in the field, and in the 1970s and 80s, she made big contributions to cancer genetics–broadening our understanding of retroviruses, enhancers and their role in cancer biology. Later, in 1989, Nancy changed her focus to zebrafish, which allowed her to ask and answer questions about genetics and development.

And yet…. For all those achievements, Nancy faced significant challenges. Throughout her career, she was often sidelined by her male colleagues. By the 1990s, she began to fight against the disparities. And she did that with the same precision with which she conducted her research. She focussed on gathering data. And she went so far as to measure by hand the size of her lab and those of her male peers. And when she realized that other female faculty members at MIT were encountering obstacles not unlike her own, she led their fight for gender equity. Finally, in 1996, a committee, which Nancy chaired, submitted a landmark report documenting widespread discrimination against female faculty at MIT.

We’re talking today with Kate Zernike, who was at The Boston Globe in 1999 and was the first to report about Nancy’s fight. Kate’s now a reporter at The New York Times … joining her is Nancy Hopkins herself.

Hosting the conversion is Julianna LeMieux. She’s a scientist by training, with a PhD in molecular biology and microbiology. She now works in science communication and is the Deputy Editor in Chief at Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, or GEN

Julianna LeMieux: Hi, I’m Julianna LeMieux, and I’m so excited to chat today with Nancy Hopkins and Kate Zernike. 

Nancy Hopkins: Hello.

Kate Zernike: Thank you.

Julianna LeMieux: Kate, let me start with you. So the book is about Nancy and the fight for women in science, but you actually start the story much earlier with Nancy’s childhood in New York City and her journey from high school to college at Radcliffe. Why did you feel it was important to retrace so much of her early life before we get to the big headlines?

Kate Zernike: Oh, it’s a good question. You know, first of all, Nancy is such a compelling character, so I wanted to tell as much as possible about her. I think, when I broke the story in 1999 for The Globe, the women at MIT were talking about unconscious bias, which was a new idea at the time. But by the time I came back to write the book, and I started reporting it in 2018, people had really heard about unconscious bias and in many cases kind of dismissed it and thought it didn’t really happen or it wasn’t really a thing. So I felt that to tell the story and to show people how it works and the toll it takes on women or people you had to tell this very personal story about someone. So I wanted people to, I mean, I sort of fell in love with the character of Nancy too, but I wanted people to understand where she came from. But I also think, there’s so much about Nancy’s childhood that tells who she is later on. 

For instance, there’s a story about how the switchboard operator in the apartment building where she grew up got very frustrated one night because all the girls from her private school from Spence would be calling Nancy asking for math homework help, and she had to take like 34 messages from all the girls in the class who wanted Nancy to do their math homework. When I mentioned this to my book editor, she said, that’s such a generous impulse.

And I think it really did go to sort of Nancy’s, you know, there was so much about her childhood that went to Nancy’s generosity, but also her determination that she had to do the right thing. So for instance, when she gets caught doing the math homework, the teacher asks her about it and she lies about it and she feels terrible that she’s lied and she goes back and she, has to tell the truth the next morning, which I think, again, just sort of goes to the kind of character we’re dealing with.

Julianna LeMieux: Nancy, and now I’m going to turn to you, why you persisted for so long in science after so many challenges. So can you tell us a little bit about when you first fell in love with science and what it is about science that you love so much?

Nancy Hopkins: Wow, what a question. What a wonderful question. Listening to both of you does remind me of these things, which no one doesn’t think about very often.

I still remember those girls and who didn’t love math, uh, the way I did. And I mean, oh my gosh, think what they were missing. I know I always felt, you know, solving math problems was a little bit like eating candy. There was something about it. It was so rewarding. It was just such a pleasure to do it. And I thought, oh, once they see this, they’re going to enjoy it too.

So, the science itself, yeah, I’ve asked myself this question. Why did you stick it out so long? And it was, you captured it, I think that’s a tribute to Kate. I think she then captured people who love science really love it and to this day I’ve looked hard for other things that are as exciting or as mind blowing as science, 

 But at the end of the day, it’s almost a belief system. And it just really appeals, it’s mine. It’s the one that works for me. When I had the problems, well, at first I thought, the privilege of being able to be a scientist at a place like Harvard or MIT where I worked in Cold Spring, I mean, I realized how incredibly fortunate anyone was who got to do that.

And so I used to think, God, what if you’ve been born in some place where there isn’t such science? You wouldn’t even know it existed. And so to be able to be there, I felt, was a real privilege. So I felt sorry for everybody else who wasn’t there. 

Kate Zernike: But tell the story about how you fell in love with science, because I think it is a real moment for you, and it, I think the passion of that moment, and all that science was going to uncover for you, I think, when you talk about that lecture at Radcliffe. 

Nancy Hopkins: Oh well, yes, I liked science all the way through from school, but, uh, I had then gone to college in an era when women were expected to get a very good education, meet their husband when they were in college, marry soon after, have children, and work, perhaps, but not have such a concentrated, careers as a man would in that generation.

And I think a lot of young people who go to college, you’re suddenly free. You’re thinking about your life and what you’re going to do with your life. And, um, I wasn’t completely convinced that this was the right path even for me, you know. Somehow, was I going to be happy living in the suburbs with two children and a dog? I don’t know. And, so I thought, maybe I should go to medical school. I had all the requirements done except biology, I signed up for the thing and I walk innocently into this class and I hear a lecture by James D. Watson, the man who discovered the structure of DNA. And I walk in as one person, and I walk out as a different person and that is the meaning of life.

He’s just told us the secret of life, and for me it was the meaning of my own life. And suddenly everything fell into place. Oh whoa. These molecular biologists, they’re gonna figure out everything about living creatures, including humans. We gonna understand diseases and why people are the way they are and how the world works.

And you know, it was a real bombshell.

Julianna LeMieux: I think, yeah, scientists do just get bitten by a bug, don’t we?

Nancy Hopkins: We do. I mean, I suppose people do for many things. I think some people, you know, it’s music. Some people it’s playing tennis. Whatever it is. But, for me it was just one moment like that. One hour. Wow. That’s it. Done.

Julianna LeMieux: So let’s talk a little bit about some of the challenges that you did face during your career. For example, and for people who read the book know during your recommendation for tenure, despite being your department’s top choice, your name was surreptitiously moved down the list at the request of a prominent colleague.

You were excluded from departmental meetings, did not receive the same opportunities to apply for funding, or they were actively hidden from you. You had the credit for a discovery stolen by a male scientist. And you were not given the same amount of lab space as your colleagues. So looking at some of these, was there one that was more difficult for you or the biggest one that was the turning point for you?

Nancy Hopkins: That also is a very interesting question and a bit hard to answer because I think, um, it is the cumulative impact of these things over years that turned me into an activist for sure. I think for each one of them, you try to find a solution when you can’t. You navigate around it. You keep going. You find another one. Another thing happens. You do the same thing. But I think the other part of it is when I look back, people say, why did it take you so long to figure this out? Everybody else knew what was your problem? 

It was a belief that science really is a meritocracy, and if you make an important enough discovery, it won’t matter what other people think of you or how they treat you, you will be acknowledged for what you do. It’s just the nature of science. And I think that belief is so strongly embedded in the occupation, culturally. And I think the other thing was that, yes, if you complained, other people who felt as I did, would see you as a whiner and also as somebody who wasn’t good enough because if you were good enough, you wouldn’t have to complain.

You would just get on with it. So, you were silenced and also very insecure in whether you were right in your judgment of whether it was fair. So, you were always looking to see, well, did that really happen because I was a woman? But finally, it took me 20 years. It took me 15 years to be certain that all other women were discriminated against, and I still couldn’t conclude it for myself. It took another five, so it took 20 years. And I gotta say that the moment I realized it was the worst moment of the whole thing. You realize you’d been fooling yourself in a way nobody had ever seen you as a full participant in this system that you loved and had given your life to, in a way, and felt, was your life, that people saw you somehow differently. And so that moment, I think people resisted. I think it’s easier to think that maybe you really aren’t good enough than it is to think that people don’t see you fairly.

If it’s really something as deep as they don’t see women the same way they see their male colleagues, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Kate Zernike: Right, you give up a little control, your own destiny to say, oh, it’s just the system. Whereas if you believe it’s the meritocracy, you can just keep pushing on, which is what I think most women did. 

Nancy Hopkins: Everybody’s different, you know, what is it that bothers you? For me, it was the realization that, oh, they never really saw me as one of them. That was the one that was sort of killer. But I became an activist because, um, I ran out of energy to try to leap over one more problem and just keep going.

I just couldn’t do it any longer. I just ran out of energy. And it was so ridiculous. And this was this thing about this teaching of a class and I’ve been told that I couldn’t teach undergraduates because MIT students didn’t believe scientific information spoken by a woman. And so I’d said, well, of course, everyone knows that.

I had accepted it as normal because as soon as somebody said it, I realized, of course, it’s true. I was able to see that women were so under-respected that students couldn’t respect them enough. And so they were afraid to put an important course into the hands of a woman for fear the students would not be able to respect them.

Anyway, many years later, I took on the teaching of a course that was going to be important for the department, and it was a course that other people generally didn’t want to teach, and then I was pushed out of that, so, because it became valuable, and so I was pushed out, and I said, that’s it, I’m done. I can’t keep doing this any longer. no, done.

Kate Zernike: Because to your mind and to all the feedback you were getting was that the course is going really well.

Nancy Hopkins: The course was going really well, and it was more than that. I’d taken this course that nobody else wanted, really, because it wasn’t good for you, it wasn’t something that benefited you in a way that certain classes do. If you teach graduate students, that’s very good for your lab, because then they come to your lab, you get to find out who’s the good students, and you can recruit them to your lab, and so forth.

And here was a class that wasn’t going to be valuable. It was a service, really, and I was happy to do it, because I was just excited about it, and I had done a previous course on which this one was based, And then, I had to even look at the data, yeah, I had to look at the student evaluations to make sure, yeah, yeah, no, I am just as good as everybody else and better, and yet I’m still being pushed out.

I said I can’t, I just can’t do this anymore. I just can’t.

Julianna LeMieux: Wow and instead of not just doing it anymore, you decided to take action.

Nancy Hopkins: Well again, by then I was 50 years old. I had a career, this was my life was running a lab. I loved my work, my scientific research at the time, and had a wonderful job, and, uh, so I really wanted to fix the problem. 

And I didn’t know how to fix it and how do you fix a problem like this? And I ran through all the standard things people think about. You go to the different administrators at different levels and you talk to them and they all listen politely and said, well, I don’t know, that might have happened.

Again, how could they understand it? It took me 20 years to figure out how could they understand from a single incident or one or two incidents what you’re talking about. And, Then I thought of suing, but I knew that if you sued an institution, you would fight for years, and it would destroy you as long as, as well as maybe bother them, but probably not much.

And I didn’t want to do that, and I didn’t know what to do, and finally I wrote a letter to the president of MIT saying, I thought, this is my last shot, I’m going to the top, and I said, you’ve got a problem here, because I’ve discovered there’s a systemic, invisible, I believe, discrimination that people don’t intend, but it’s very damaging.

And, I decided I had better show it to another person before I sent it to him, and I chose a woman. And I had not talked to other women really seriously about this for the reasons I told you, you know, afraid that other people will think you’re whining. I knew they were discriminated against, I didn’t think they knew.

This is so interesting. Anyway, I got up my courage and I asked this woman, I just respected her so much, Mary-Lou Pardue, and she was such a successful scientist and she was dignified and impressive in every way. And I asked her to read my letter to the president of MIT and see whether she thought it was okay that I should send it to him.

And, she read it, and then she said she wanted to sign it. She agreed with everything I said, and that moment literally changed my life. Changed, ultimately, MIT. And, thanks to Kate Zernike, got out and changed the world, I guess you’d say, in a funny way. 

Julianna LeMieux: Nancy, that’s such an amazing point. And I want to get back to that point that you just we’re talking about about when Mary-Lou offered to sign the letter, but Kate, what I wanna ask you is, let’s go back to 1999 for a second. When you had that first phone call with Nancy and began to learn the story, what stood out to you?

Kate Zernike: Oh, a couple of things. One, just the sheer fact that MIT was going to admit that it discriminated against the women on its faculty. And that, that alone, Nancy likes to hear me say this, that in my business is what we call a man bites dog story. It was not what anyone was expecting. The second and in some ways more interesting thing to me was that these women had, you know, the reason the president of MIT was going to acknowledge this was that the women had gathered all the data and written this report to show how they were discriminated against, and they had numbers.

And I come from, on my father’s side, a long background of scientists, and I think I just thought like, wow, they did what scientists do. They had leaned into their science, and I thought that was so clever. Those were sort of the two selling points, but then it really was that they were talking about a different kind of discrimination, and I think this even persists today a little bit. 

We think that discrimination, for it really to be discrimination, it has to be a door shut in your face. You have to basically be told you can’t have this because you’re a woman, because you’re a person of color, because you’re gay, whatever it is. And what they were saying was, no, no, this is what happens after the door is open. That’s what matters. That’s what shapes careers. And it’s the subtle bias and it’s the things, you know, many times as Nancy said, many times it was unintentional, but it really it’s insidious and it’s stubborn and in some ways again, I think this is still true, it’s harder to fight than the more egregious examples of discrimination, of certainly of gender discrimination, because people aren’t sure it’s real and the women themselves aren’t sure it’s real. So, I think it was that these women had done what scientists do. I thought they were incredibly ingenious, but also that they were illuminating a new kind of discrimination, which I, I, was just starting my own reporting career. It was not something I thought about, but everything they said made sense and I could say, Oh yes, I see exactly how that happens.

Julianna LeMieux: And to get back to the collecting data part and speaking science, Nancy, do you think that that’s one of the reasons why this story had the success that it did? Because you were speaking the same language because you were fluent in that language.

Nancy Hopkins: Yes, absolutely. I think that was a huge part of it. We were so lucky. I mean, MIT is a science and engineering school, and we were scientists, and also, later soon, engineers. So we really were talking the same language. I’ve thought about that. What if it had been, you know, poets or something? Would it have worked out?

I hope so, but I’m not sure. You know? Just to go back to the thing about Mary-Lou. Mary-Lou was the first woman ever in the school of science at MIT, elected to the National Academy of Sciences. And so that’s kind of our stamp of approval.

If you’re elected to the National Academy of Sciences, you’re good enough for MIT. So maybe Nancy Hopkins wasn’t good enough for MIT, but Mary-Lou Pardue was. Okay. I respected her enormously. I knew how good she was.The world knew how good she was. And yet I also knew that she had been discriminated against. The fact that she knew it, that’s the new thing I learned. And this woman who had this stamp of approval from the world, really, as a scientist, had now agreed to it. The world just shifted in that moment. It really did. And, she was looking at me, and I think the same thing was going through her head. I think it was this thing of, Oh my goodness, there’s two of us who agree about this. 

We looked at each other and said, You know, I suppose there could be more. Because you realize the power of two. Suppose you had more. It really was an extraordinary thing and, can you imagine, here we are, sitting here in this room, talking to each other about this, but to me, it’s as if it happened, yesterday, at that moment, you know, it changed my life, but that it could have this impact, after all, when it became public, because it did speak to the truth and helped people to understand it. I think that was the other thing, because I had gone to these very good men, wonderful men. So we had some wonderful administrators. They listened, but they couldn’t understand it. And I don’t blame them. I can see why they had trouble understanding it.

They just thought it was a difficult person you ran into. It was the circumstances of that particular experience, it was the reason. And there always was another reason you could ascribe it to. So it really required this group coming together and with the data.

Kate Zernike: And I think the data was important, but also it was the combination of the data and the stories, right? Because another thing about scientists, same is true of journalists, we look for patterns, right? So there’s this moment in the book where Nancy and Mary-Lou decide they’re going to talk to all these other women at MIT, and see if they feel the same way. And there’s this moment after the women come together that they go and they speak to the Dean of Science, who’s a man, and he says, you know, there’s six of these women sitting around his conference table, and he says to me later, you know, he knew them all individually, and had any one of them come to him individually, And given the same story, he would have said, Oh, well, it’s this department head, or it’s this grant that she lost out on, or she’s mad about this, or she’s always been difficult whatever.

But seeing and hearing these women one after another tell the same version of the story, he describes it like, the greatest scientific epiphany he’s ever had. You know, it was like, Oh, this is, we have a problem here. We need to fix this.

Julianna LeMieux: Yeah.

Nancy Hopkins: The other thing about it is, you know, the people were different departments, different fields. And the success of these women, and that was the thing about Mary-Lou, she was the first one elected, but still, out of that group, they knew these people were on track to become the next bunch of National Academy members.

And they did, And so, they knew how good those women were as a group. And when you saw it all together, it had power. 

Kate Zernike: So of the 16 women, 11 are members of the National Academy of Sciences, four have won the National Medal of Science. These were not, these are not women where you, in any objective way, would look and go, eh, they’re really not good enough.

Julianna LeMieux: So Nancy, going back to the moment when Mary-Lou signed your letter and you knew you had an ally, what did it feel like when you realized you had allies? It should be noted some were men along the way, but your biggest allies were the 15 women. What was the impact of that group and how did it feel to have those allies? 

Nancy Hopkins: They really were, and remain for me, the story. And after Mary-Lou and I looked at each other and said, you know, I suppose there could be more, uh, we went and said, okay, how many more?

So we got out a catalog to look at the number of women faculty, tenured, we only wanted to deal with tenured women. Tenured women faculty, In the six departments of science at MIT, and there were only, you know, 17 women and 200, some 197 men. And so it didn’t take very long to find these people. And so we split into groups, I’ll take half, you take half, kind of thing, off we went to meet with them. And within a few days, everyone we met wanted to join up and say, do you have something I could sign? So they did become a group and that was the most important thing. After Mary-Lou’s initial reaction for me, that was the next most important thing.

I became very, very close to these women and I knew where they were all the time. And I would speak to this one in the morning and that one and late at night. Every day I was talking to them and we never did anything. Anything took a step without consulting all of them. And everybody’s in, everyone had to agree. And I would then write a memo, and I’d send it to the dean and say, you know, once we got going, this is what we want to do next. And every woman had to sign off on it. We needed all those people’s ideas, we needed the different, because they were different fields, different, and it was the common themes that told the story, and so finding those common themes and making sure everyone was comfortable with it, and it was, no one was gonna be exposed, and we never talked to people about it, we were operating in secrecy, essentially, so people wouldn’t be damaged by people knowing we were doing this.

So, to this day, I still don’t make my decisions without calling some of them up and saying, What do you think I should do about this? Um, they, they were amazing people, every one of them. Pioneers, I mean, everyone.

Julianna LeMieux: Yeah, I think Kate, you once said Nancy couldn’t have done it without the group, and the group wouldn’t have done it without Nancy. Absolutely. So they were just a beautiful marriage there. 

Kate Zernike: Yeah, I mean I often say that Nancy’s, well Nancy will say it herself, she’s a reluctant feminist, but I think she’s also a reluctant leader. But these women wouldn’t have come forward without Nancy’s determination to do this, and I think Nancy wouldn’t have necessarily felt secure in that determination without those women behind her.

Julianna LeMieux: Well and to your point about the women going and telling all the stories at the same time, it maybe wouldn’t, it certainly wouldn’t have worked without a group.

Kate Zernike: And this sort of goes to the title of the book, like, everyone thinks they’re the exception. Everyone thinks, oh, this is just happening to me, or, oh, that was just this one situation. What you have to realize is like, no, no, no. This is the rule. This is happening to everybody and the only way we’re going to talk about this is to point that out.

Julianna LeMieux: So Kate, it’s been over two decades since your first report in 1999. Why did you want to return to Nancy’s story today and the measuring tape heard around the world?

Kate Zernike: Well again, I thought these women were so ingenious in what they’d done and they’d really educated me. I think partly when I came back to this story to write it as a book, I was the age Nancy was when she took her magic tape measure and measured these, you know, the lab space and the office space. And so I had seen more and understood, and I think I slightly kicked myself for not having digested it and learned the lesson as a younger reporter. But really, I think I just felt like this was a real learning opportunity and a way to sort of educate people about what we’re talking about. You know, how does this work? How does bias work? 

I started looking into this as a book idea in January of 2018. We were just coming out of the surge of the #MeToo movement. And I was watching the #MeToo movement thinking okay, great. I’m glad that we’re addressing these issues, these very egregious issues.

I’m sort of amazed it took us this long. But what about the problem that I see happening to so many more women that I think is more stubborn and more insidious because you can’t identify it, which is this idea of, of the unconscious bias and the small ways in which women are marginalized, not allowed to be on the track that men are in terms of career promotion, you know, sort of pushed aside or ignored and it’s not a big aha moment usually. It’s it’s really small stuff, but that small stuff adds up. And to me, I was just looking at the world and thinking like, well, that’s the problem. Why is no one talking about that? Let’s talk about that. And again, I thought Nancy was a generous and wonderful vehicle to tell the story through, because this was, this really was her life. This is what happened to her

Julianna LeMieux: Absolutely. And when you read the report that Nancy and the other women had put together, what stood out to you, and what made you think that this was going to have huge ripple effects? Beyond the scientific community. 

Kate Zernike: I think in the beginning, because my father, who is a physicist, had talked to me about women and the lack of women in physics, I thought, like, oh, this kind of appeals to me, right?

Like, I didn’t think, I didn’t know, and nor did Nancy or anybody else at MIT, that this was going to rock around the world the way it did. But I think it, it was, what I read in the report, I remember a few phrases and it really was this whole idea of 21st century discrimination, how discrimination works now.

It’s not the egregious stuff. I mean, there is still some egregious stuff, obviously, as #MeToo taught us, but it’s, it’s the subtle stuff. And it was, this idea, I think you had a line in there, Nancy, it was something about, they’d open the door, but you were tolerated but not welcomed or tolerated but not included. And that’s really the essence of what happens, right? You open the door to people, but are you really, are you accepting them as full citizens?

Julianna LeMieux: Nancy, switching to some more recent and very good news. You recently received a prestigious award, the National Academy of Sciences Public Welfare Medal for your brave leadership over the last three decades to help make sure more women have fair opportunities in science. What did it mean to you to receive that award?

Nancy Hopkins: I don’t know if I can explain it. I was just overwhelmed, honestly. I really was, and still sort of am. And I think, there’s a couple of reasons I just never thought of it, in those terms. I think, you set out to cure cancer, you’re going to win the Nobel Prize. This was something I backed into because you couldn’t do your work, and it wasn’t very popular. And so to have it, have this outcome, it’s hard to even grasp. And I think the other thing, um, is that I realized, you know, after I did this, and went back and learned more about women in science, and traveled all over the country giving talks on this report, and met all these women, how many women and some men gave their lives to make it possible for women to have a job, If you read the histories of Margaret Rossiter at this book, for example, on women in science, oh my gosh, what it took to, for women to be allowed to get an advanced degree, to become a faculty member at these, You know, what do we have to have? The Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement, Title IX, you know, these monumental social movements about how social change happens. So, I feel, yes, the MIT story is amazing, and within science, I think it really had certainly an impact. But I felt, gosh, it’s picked out, this particular thing, as a representative of the work of so many people.

Actually Kate and I went to, Washington, and we went to this event, and it was really remarkable, and, to join the people who have been given this award are people whose work really did have an impact in changing the world, and I think, you know, when Kate told the story, it had this outcome. I didn’t predict it. I wish I could claim credit, but I can’t. But hey, it’s what happened. Quite a trip.

Kate Zernike: One of the things that’s been kind of heartbreaking for me is, in all the time that I was reporting the book, Nancy and I would have these conversations and I felt like Nancy, you would constantly be saying, well, was it really worth doing all this work on the women? Like, was that really, that this was sort of somehow second best work? And there was obviously, as there would be, because time is not flexible. there was a cost to your science and I felt like you really worried about the cost to your science. And so getting this, getting the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences, I feel like that was the first time that I heard you fully acknowledge that, Oh yes, this work was important. This was a big deal. 

Nancy Hopkins: Well, for sure. I mean, that’s for sure. I think, you know, so you realize the thing that you set out to do that was important to you may not be the thing you end up doing that other people think is an important thing you did. 

Julianna LeMieux: I would say adding to that, that you did all the amazing science and this on top of it, right? As amazing science as the men at MIT and also all this other work.

Nancy Hopkins: But I think, I mean, this is something we haven’t talked about and maybe we don’t need to but, you do pay a price when you do this, okay, there is a cost, and, I think through all the time, I think this is the other reason the medal had such an amazing effect, through all those years I was doing it, I did it because it had to be done,I got, ended up in a position where I was the person who had to be doing it. I felt I’m doing something wrong here because I, so many of my colleagues will never understand it, and will always, you know hold it against you at some level so there’s a certain pain associated with it as well and that will never go away completely and I understand it. But you know, it had to be done and has to be done.

Kate Zernike: Wait, I think that’s, say that again. So, you were saying, you feel like your colleagues held it against you, and so,

Nancy Hopkins: Of course.

Kate Zernike: there was pain associated with it, but this kind of took away the pain? Is that what you mean?

Nancy Hopkins: It did. It did. I think it really did. We’ve talked very politely about all of this due to unconscious bias. The reality is underlying that bias is a belief that women aren’t good enough. That’s what it comes down to. At the bottom of it all, that’s what drives that belief. 

So, when you stood up against that, people don’t, of course they don’t just, Oh, thank you for telling me, now I got it right. Uh, no, that’s not how it works. No, they still believe it. And so, you have to deal with that. But I think that what the National Academy did, what they did is extraordinary. And extraordinary on the part of the leadership of the Academy and of the committee that did this because it says it very loud and clear. No, this is the way it really is.

Kate Zernike: And there was such a, you know, Nancy gave this wonderful talk and there was such a prolonged standing ovation afterward for her. I mean, I still feel it. It was really incredible. You really got the sense that Nancy had moved this room and she’d moved the world, really. 

Julianna LeMieux: Amazing. What a positive note to end on. Well, again, Nancy and Kate, for sharing this amazing story that continues to have such a huge impact.

Kate Zernike: Thank you.

Nancy Hopkins: Terrific

Katie Hafner: This has been Lost Women of Science Conversations. This episode was hosted by Juliana LeMieux. Laura Isensee was our producer and Hans Hsu was our sound engineer. 

Thanks to Jeff DelViscio at our publishing partner, Scientific American and to the team at CDM Sound Studios in New York. Thank you to my co-executive producer, Amy Scharf, as always, as well as our senior managing producer, Deborah Unger.

The episode art was created by Karen Mevorach, and Lizzie Younan composes our music. Lexi Atiya was our fact checker. Lost Women of Science is funded in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Anne Wojcicki Foundation. We’re distributed by PRX.

If you’ve enjoyed this conversation, please go to our website, lost women of and subscribe so you will never miss an episode. That’s Oh and do not forget to click on that all important donate button. I’m Katie Hafner. See you next time.


MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XI, No. 4; March 1999

The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science. Kate Zernike. Scribner, 2023

“Report Finds Bias against Women in Science and Engineering,” in PBS NewsHour; September 19, 2006

Breaking Through: My Life in Science. Katalin Karikó. Crown, 2023

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. Walter Isaacson; Simon & Schuster, 2021


MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XI, No. 4; March 1999

The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science. Kate Zernike. Scribner, 2023

“Report Finds Bias against Women in Science and Engineering,” in PBS NewsHour; September 19, 2006

Breaking Through: My Life in Science. Katalin Karikó. Crown, 2023

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. Walter Isaacson; Simon & Schuster, 2021