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Nancy Hopkins Named Xconomy’s 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner

Xconomy Boston — 

We at Xconomy are excited to announce that we are honoring Nancy Hopkins, professor emerita at MIT, with our 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award. The award recognizes Hopkins’s career in genetics and cancer biology research, as well as her groundbreaking work advocating for women in science that sparked change and inspired many in both academia and industry. She will receive her award and give an acceptance speech at our annual Xconomy Awards gala on Sept. 5 in Boston. Here’s more on Hopkins’s career.

As an MIT biologist in the early 1990s, Nancy Hopkins (pictured) wanted more lab space, just 200 more square feet for her 1,500-square-foot lab, so that her research group could move into a new field and study zebrafish genetics. But when her request was repeatedly denied, she did what any scientist would do and gathered data. Using a tape measure that was once on display at the MIT Museum, she found that fellow senior professors who were men had labs that were up to four times larger than hers. She had the same-sized lab as male professors who were more junior than her.

Little did she know at the time, but by documenting this and other inequities between male and female science faculty at MIT, Hopkins was starting a movement for more gender diversity that would ripple throughout MIT and other universities across the country. Her impact was felt in the life science industry as well. Becoming an activist “was the last thing in the world I wanted to do,” Hopkins says. She just wanted to be a scientist. “But I found I couldn’t do science unless something changed.”

In reports released in 1999 and 2002, Hopkins and various MIT faculty committees outlined the ways women professors were marginalized. The reports made several recommendations, which the university adopted. MIT leaders improved family leave and promotion policies, established an on-campus childcare center, and appointed more women in faculty positions in science and engineering and in senior administrative positions. MIT was quick to make changes because of Hopkins’s approach, says Susan Hockfield, who was named MIT president in 2004 as the first woman to hold that position. “Her data-based approach gained allies—men and women—to the cause of creating a better, more equitable environment for all.”

Another woman MIT recruited was Sangeeta Bhatia, a bioengineering professor who joined MIT in 2005 and has since founded multiple biotech companies. “I probably wouldn’t be here were it not for the changes [Hopkins] had implemented,” she told Technology Review last year.

MIT became a national model for tackling gender discrimination in academia, prompting other universities, including Stanford, the University of Michigan, and Duke, to do similar reviews. Princeton, for example, started looking at faculty salary gaps and promotion rates every year and made several key policy changes. “All these changes could be traced back to Nancy’s work at MIT,” says Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist who was Princeton’s president from 2001 to 2013.

A Voice in Biotech

Hopkins’s impact reached the biotech industry as well. Deborah Dunsire, who will soon become CEO of the Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck (her fourth CEO position), says Hopkins was an outspoken supporter of her in the 2000s when Dunsire was still a new, and rare, female CEO of Millennium Pharmaceuticals. “Nancy has been a forceful voice for driving more equality for women in science in all fields,” Dunsire says.

Joanne Kamens, executive director of the scientific research nonprofit Addgene, has worked in the life science industry for more than 20 years. She says she didn’t see much improvement for women in biotech and pharma in the early 2000s, but that began to change in 2005. That was when Hopkins walked out of a meeting in which then-Harvard president Larry Summers said in a speech that differences in “intrinsic aptitude” between women and men explain gender disparities in the science and engineering workforce.

Kamens points to this event as a turning point for her and other women. She had founded the Boston chapter of the Association for Women in Science (Mass AWIS) in 2004, but the Summers incident “really woke up a lot of women to get involved in Mass AWIS and it helped get the chapter off of the ground,” Kamens says. “That was the beginning of the changes we are finally seeing now.”

Several years ago, Hopkins turned her attention to the lack of gender diversity in biotech, particularly among scientific founders and advisors. Having watched many of her male colleagues at MIT launch companies over the years, she knew that few women were part of the inner circle of startup-founding scientists and investors. But when she did an informal survey in 2012 of biotech companies, she was still shocked. In a sample of 12 companies, she found that out of a total of 129 members of scientific advisory boards, only six were women. “If women [faculty] are excluded from an industry that’s so important for our profession, it’s like turning the clock back” on the progress that’s been made, Hopkins says.

Dunsire says the representation of women in biotech leadership roles has improved but only in the last five years or so—after Hopkins did her survey. Dunsire says she has seen more women in more senior positions in biotech and more women professors taking on entrepreneurial roles. Hopkins has been influential here, too, she adds. “Nancy has been particularly vocal about women academics getting access to the opportunities to start companies,” Dunsire says. (For example, see this Boston Globe op-ed on this topic co-authored last year by Hopkins.)

But a 2017 report from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council and Liftstream showed there’s still a long way to go on gender equality in biotech, particularly as women climb the corporate ladder.

Hopkins, now 75 and retired from MIT, applauds such efforts to gather data on gender inequality, but cautions: “If you stop checking the data, things can slide back pretty fast.” Early successes in closing gaps between women and men can’t lead to complacency, she says. “It’s a process that you have to keep doing until women really are seen as equal.”