Wistar’s Women and Science Program was established to discuss the role of basic and clinical research related to women’s health while also promoting the role of women scientists. While gender imbalance in the sciences is still an issue, significant strides have been made in the last few decades thanks in part to the work of Nancy H. Hopkins, Ph.D., the Amgen, Inc. Professor of Biology Emerita at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Hopkins is not only a remarkable scientist – her work contributed to important discoveries about how genes influence longevity and cancer predisposition – but a pioneer in advancing the role that women play in scientific research. In the 1990s, she was chair of the First Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Science at MIT and oversaw a landmark report on how MIT and institutions around the world could help improve the balance of women in science.
It is quite fitting, then, that Hopkins was the very first recipient of the Helen Dean King Award. Helen Dean King began graduate studies at Bryn Mawr College in 1895 and received a Ph.D. in 1899 under the famous geneticist, Thomas Hunt Morgan. King joined The Wistar Institute's research staff in 1908 and remained there until her retirement in 1950. She was the first and only woman in America who held a full professorship in research between 1910 and 1920. King was a highly regarded scientist who helped breed the famous laboratory model known as the Wistar rat, hence the shape of the Helen Dean King Award in her honor.
During the ceremony, Hopkins first told her story about being part of the seminal research team devoted to discovering and understanding the earliest known oncogenes, or genes that cause cancer. She relayed the dismay she felt in her career as cancer researchers of her generation realized that cancer was a far more complicated disease than they ever could have imagined, but she also told of her optimism that her research laid the groundwork to better understand the root causes of cancer and were the basis for powerful therapies that are forthcoming.
She then told the courageous story that lead to the alarming report she wrote in the 1990s, titled “A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT.” The study was first prompted when Hopkins noted the lab space made available to female professors was considerably smaller than her male colleagues. As a full professor, she had been given 1,500 square feet of lab space while male junior professors averaged 2,000 square feet and full professors ranged between 3,000 and 6,000 square feet. Then President of MIT, Dr. Charles Vest supported the findings made by Hopkins and her colleagues, and the university made significant commitments to improving its policies and practices in order to benefit women scientists. She also shared her shocking data on the state of gender inequality on the advisory boards of biotech companies. As she ended her talk at the Women and Science event, she said to her engaged audience, “So much has been done, yet there is still so much more to do.”
Learn more about Wistar’s upcoming Women and Science program.