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The Man in The Ivory Tower

Lined up along a wall in Hopkins's MIT office are eight bottles that once contained very respectable champagne. Moet & Chandon. Perrier Jouet. Written on the labels of each one is a date, and a note to remind her of the career or research triumph commemorated by each dead soldier. One marked 2004 was uncorked to celebrate her induction into the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Hopkins is a top researcher in biology whose work, identifying the genes of the zebra fish, could lead to powerful new tools in the fight against cancer.

In the early 1990s, she needed about 200 square feet of research space to continue her work. She says she begged and pleaded with the university for months.


Lawrence Summers talks with the press after being named Harvard president in 2001. Controversy dogged him soon after his arrival. (Lawrence Jackson -- AP)

"We were developing a technology that was high risk, very high risk," she says. "But we were having little breakthroughs. We needed tiny amounts of space to do the research, and by that time I was a full professor."

She wasn't having any luck. Men at MIT didn't seem to have the same issues with red tape and unyielding bureaucracy. The experience profoundly depressed her.

"I really couldn't go on, I just couldn't," she says. "I remember sitting at home, saying, 'I can't do this anymore. I can't live like this.' It was the low point of my entire life. Finally I overcame it by saying, 'I really want to do this science, I'm going to fix it.' It was an anger kind of thing."

So she started comparing notes with other women at MIT and found it wasn't just her.

"It is so hard to explain, because each incident that happens to you, there is always some plausible explanation for how it could happen," she says. "But it's chronic."

She organized the tenured women faculty in science to discuss the issue, and they took their concerns to the administration. A committee was formed, a report issued, and according to Hopkins, things changed. The kinds of insider knowledge, the "who talks to whom" and all the unspoken secrets of negotiating with the power structure changed. She started bypassing men in the administration who subtly discouraged her. She applied for a $30,000 grant. The company offering the money came back with a better proposal: $10 million. Her lab swelled to 25 people, her risky experiments paid off, many of the disease genes of the zebra fish turned out to be closely related to human genes, and Hopkins is now a star.

It was Hopkins's departure while Summers was giving his controversial remarks on women in science that started the media circus, and in the ensuing fracas she was painted as a whiny feminist, a crybaby unsuited to the brawling give-and-take of academia.

"Do you feel you might have overreacted a bit, that he was trying to shock participants at the conference?" asked Katie Couric, on the "Today" show.

She was angry, she says, and she had a visceral reaction in which the memory of a difficult, frustrating time of her life resurfaced. Hopkins, who says that having a scientific career meant forgoing a family, views her life as a long battle that led, ultimately, to a new and better era for women at MIT. And here was Larry Summers, speculating about things she thinks he doesn't understand, setting the clock back to the point when it was presumed that women were simply incapable of the basic mathematical thinking that is a prerequisite of many scientific careers.

Familiar Sentiments

For people who attended a symposium organized by the Committee on Ethnic Studies at Harvard in September 2004, the whole debate about Summers's remarks on women sounded familiar. The symposium was devoted to Native American issues, and Summers addressed the participants. It seemed to those present, including Michael Yellow Bird, that he was speaking off the cuff, throwing out ideas, touching on controversial issues without a grasp of the current historical research, and without much concern for the sensitivities of those present. He talked in ways that to many of those there seemed to devalue the suffering of native people over the past centuries.

"I think it is very important," says Yellow Bird, director of the Center for Indigenous Nations Studies at the University of Kansas, that "university presidents have a grasp of the knowledge available to them. If they don't understand things, they should ask questions."

A Harvard professor who was present put it more strongly: "It was wrong, it was hurtful, it was unnecessary, and it was offensive." The professor asked not to be named for fear of being vilified as Hopkins has been.


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