The Exceptions book cover

The Fight for Women in Science

By Amber Foust

In June, the North Carolina chapter of AWIS hosted a virtual book club featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Kate Zernike, author of The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science (February 2023). Members from several AWIS chapters joined online to discuss the story of a group of activist women scientists, including Dr. Hopkins, a molecular biologist whom Zernike originally wrote an article about for The Boston Globe in 1999.

Zernike is now a New York Times national correspondent who has covered stories on politics, equity, science, Congress, Hurricane Katrina, and more. Earlier, when she was on the Globe’s staff and on the education beat, she heard about a group of women at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who were raising awareness about the unequal treatment of women faculty members at MIT’s School of Science. Zernike admits that this story didn’t interest her very much at first since “we were well past coeducation,” but she agreed to do some investigating.

When she initially met with these women, including Dr. Hopkins, more than 20 years ago, she was impressed with the systematic way that they had gathered evidence to support their claim that they had experienced unconscious bias throughout the course of their careers. They were so thorough, in fact, that their work prompted MIT to admit to the discrimination in a formal report and to implement several policy changes to address the inequitable treatment. The Exceptions offers a deeper look into the lives and careers of these incredible women and an assessment of how they came to leave their mark on women in science.

Dr. Hopkins’s story is one that many book club attendees related to, whether they had been conducting research for decades or were recent graduates entering STEM fields. One AWIS member, Dr. Suzanne Fisher, had personally known some of the women in The Exceptions, and she had even attended Cold Spring Harbor herself, the laboratory where Dr. Hopkins completed her post-doctoral fellowship with Dr. James Watson. She noted that she has always felt as though “women have to be better than men to be equal to men,” and she said that throughout her career, she has experienced numerous circumstances in which she has had to pave the way for women. In fact, Dr. Fisher became pregnant during her postdoctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute Laboratory of Pathology at NIH and had to write her own maternity-leave policy because in 1980, one had not yet been established.

The challenge that pregnancy represents for many professional women is, in fact, a recurring theme in The Exceptions. Dr. Hopkins felt torn between her love for science and her love for her husband. She described her battling feelings as a “love triangle,” and for a time, she prepared to give up her career for a family and children. The molecular biologist believed that there was no way she could become successful in science if she were to have children, a feeling she maintained throughout her career. Dr. Hopkins never had children of her own, although she did describe the students working in her laboratory as her “children” and felt as though she had a family within the lab. This reminded Dr. Fisher of a group of women she knew at NIH who shared this belief and refer to themselves as the “NIH Nuns.”

Fortunately, many women who participated in the book club discussion credited an increase in family resources, an improvement in maternity leave policies, and a general cultural shift as the reasons why they can thrive both in their careers and in their families. Dr. Allyn Howlett, AWIS-North Carolina’s treasurer,  stated, “I really did want to have a family, and I really wanted to stay in science, and I did make it work!” Zernike mentioned that Dr. Hopkins, herself, was impressed as she walked around college campuses recently and noticed women proudly displaying their “baby bumps,” something that she had not been able to picture. At NIH, where Dr. Fisher had created her own maternity leave policy, has adopted a more inclusive parental leave and childcare policy as well.

Zernike also discussed some of the key similarities she had noticed when she interviewed both the women and men scientists at MIT, most notably, what she described as their “singlemindedness.” She was impressed with their common ability to focus on their research question and to pursue solutions relentlessly. She discovered that this determination crossed over into their daily lives as well, which reminded her of a story about British chemist Rosalind Franklin, who had walked for miles to a hospital after she had fallen on a nail that was embedded in her knee. The doctor expressed his incredulity that anyone could have walked with such an injury, and Rosalind Franklin simply laughed.

Kate Zernike, author of The Exceptions
Kate Zernike, author of The Exceptions

The broader story of Dr. Rosalind Franklin and her role in helping to discover the helical structure of DNA also features in The Exceptions. Since the discovery, two men, Dr. James Watson and Dr. Francis Crick, have often received all the credit. Dr. Hopkins worked for a time in Dr. James Watson’s labs at Harvard University and Cold Spring Harbor, and was mentored by him throughout her career. She recalled that Dr. Watson had described Dr. Franklin as “prickly,” but she had not given much thought to why he had felt that way. At the time, the term “feminist” was almost used derogatorily, but it had not dawned on her that this negative view might be influencing his opinion. Zernike mentioned that both Dr. Hopkins and Dr. Franklin did not want to “play the gender card” when they faced such challenges, and Dr. Hopkins frequently expressed her belief that although she had heard of women who experienced discrimination, she did not believe that it was happening to her. It wasn’t until she gathered the courage to talk about her own challenges with the other women scientists at MIT that she realized that they were all having to overcome what they described as “unconscious bias”—a novel idea at the time.

Dr. Allyn Howlett, Professor of Physiology and Pharmacology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and Assistant Dean of Wake Forest’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, noted that women scientists’ strong emphasis on the intensity of teamwork could help them to overcome some of these challenges, although she acknowledged the unconscious biases that remain today. Often, the media portrays science as a solo venture, which fails to acknowledge the diversity required to accomplish any scientific discoveries. Dr. Howlett would love to see science described in terms of the team, as well as a growing awareness that a new hypothesis cannot be formed without extensive research by multiple laboratories.

She hopes that in the future, we can create a culture where it is reasonable for people to think that “the person standing next to them at the grocery store might be a scientist who is helping to create new ideas.”

As the book club discussion was wrapping up, Zernike agreed with the idea that scientific teamwork must be front and center. She also noted that when she is developing a news story, she shares the same joyous curiosity that she encountered in the women scientists whom she interviewed. She hopes that as we move forward, we can continue to build momentum for inclusivity and equity. As we raise generations  who view “mommies at work” as normal, and as we keep pushing for structural changes that support women’s careers,  we must also continue to place an emphasis on equity and on expanding the number of women in STEM. “Numbers really do matter,” Zernike said, “so that women can see examples of who they want to be.”

Amber FoustAmber Foust is a Technical Specialist at Carolina BioOncology Institute’s Biocytics Human Applications Laboratory, an immuno-oncology research laboratory in Huntersville, North Carolina. She is also a Communications Officer in the United States Army Reserve. She has earned a BS from Campbell University, and an MS from the University of Florida, both in Pharmaceutical Sciences. Amber serves as the communications co-chair for AWIS North Carolina and enjoys meeting other women who share her same passion for research and discovery.

This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.