Memoir/ A Woman in Science
Through the Spiral Ceiling
By Laura L. Mays Hoopes
The Halstead-Bent Professor of Biology
"The question a scientist asks determines the scope of scientific
content. The design of a scientist's experiments is the equivalent of a
writer's style. The skill, beauty and depth with which style and content
are joined is, for both scientist and writer, the measure of
accomplishment, and both alike are stern in the judgment of fellow
workers deemed insufficient in either." -Vivian Gornick, Women in
Becoming a scientist isn't a slam dunk. I wasn't an early-blooming
scientist, even with encouragement from my chemical engineer father. I
had a hard time seeing where scientists found the questions or problems
they studied. People think science is all about the answers, but if you
want to practice science, finding the problems is more important.
That issue came to a boil in 1962, during my sophomore year at Goucher
College in Baltimore. Helene Guttman came to substitute for a professor
who was on leave. She was five feet of dynamite, never still and always
talking. She had short, curly light brown hair that had split ends and
flew everywhere. Helene knew it all. I don't mean she was a know-it-all,
but just try to mention something you think she hasn't heard of. Of
course she was from New York, and that helps when you want to know it
all. Maybe it's the confidence they get from the perception that New
York is the hub of the universe. "I work on pteridine pigments," she
would say, and I'm sure she gloried in the fact that not one person in
10 who heard the name of the pigments would be able to spell the word.
I diffidently mentioned to her that I needed more work hours, and she
said, "I have several bottles of frozen flies you can behead for me, if
Oh, boy, not really what I had in mind. But it was money. I worked for
her cutting off the heads of frozen fruit flies, because most of the
flies' colored pigments were in the huge eyes. I must admit, at times
when I was frustrated, I dubbed these flies with the names of certain
professors, just before relieving them of their heads.
As I beheaded flies, Helene talked about science; she often said, "Now
that would make a good project!" She mentioned many interesting
questions in biology, or areas that we didn't yet understand. She seemed
to spout these unsolved problems from every pore. At some point, I asked
her my naive question. "Where do problems come from? How do you think up
good problems to base a project on?" She looked at me with amazement and
didn't answer. I guess she didn't know, since it came so naturally to
She said, "Here, I will put up a list on my bookshelf of problems that
would be interesting to work on." Of course, those were HER problems.
With today's eyes, I think that I sensed that I was amplifying others'
ideas, filling in the details, according to Thomas Kuhn's ideas in
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn suggested that in some
fields of science people had agreed about the overview and were just
doing normal research, filling in the blanks in a form that already
existed. In other fields, scientists had not yet put together a grand
design. Kuhn explained that it was possible to work in a disorganized
field, figure out the next great generalization, and have a huge impact
on science. I had a game show mental image of what I wanted. I
visualized searching for the end of a thread that would lead through the
maze of science to a golden door behind which an important mystery of
nature was hiding.
I heard an amusing apocryphal anecdote about Nobel laureates, Melvin
Calvin and Arthur Kornberg. They were sitting in a bar discussing this
issue early in their careers. They supposedly decided that Calvin would
discover how carbon was captured in photosynthesis, and Kornberg would
discover how DNA was copied for inheritance. They did, and voila! Nobel
prizes for both. I heard that they later wore satin prize-fighter robes
with the years of their Nobel prizes on them to a Stanford University
event. Is this true? Who knows, but it's the kind of legendary talk
about science that young scientists hear. The moral seems to be that if
you find the right problem, you will be spectacularly successful in
I thought picking a momentous problem was important, but I didn't know
how to do it. I wondered about my naive question, decapitated some
flies, decapitated some more flies, and looked at Helene's posted
"problems list" to see if it would suggest where her ideas originated.
It didn't. I sighed and went back to the fly guillotine.
Finally, almost imperceptibly, I crossed that line. I came to know enough
about biology that I started asking questions. The phrase "critical
mass" is out of favor since atomic energy isn't politically correct, but
it seemed like I needed to collect a critical mass of information, and
then it would start a chain reaction in my brain. By watching this
reaction ferment, I would see where the connections were missing or
unclear or where they implied a piece of the puzzle which was missing.
To continue the male imagery, you could call the insight a bombshell.
From fly heads to bombshells was my path, then, and because Helene had
no real answers for me, I had to find my own way.
I first noticed that the barrier was broken when I got ideas for research
while reading an embryology text alone in my room. I was so pleased when
it hit me that I danced a jig, clicking my heels until the students
downstairs banged on the ceiling.
The process I went through, trying to understand where questions and
problems come from, has made me more interested in students trying to
make this leap. Students want to start with a pre-existing problem; it's
a struggle to get them to take a risk. They typically look for their own
golden doors when they start to design a senior thesis question they
want to answer. It's particularly hard for very bright students, who
easily criticize published experiments; quick critical analysis can nip
creativity in the bud.
I can say I'm a scientist, and proudly so, but I'm also a teacher who
wants to produce more scientists. I exulted when the Ph.D. advisor of
one of my former students said, "She was trembling with excitement when
she told me about her results!" He begged me to send him more students
who understand the thrill of research, and I know why. One of the joys
of my academic life is working with students who are in the process of
finding their own threads leading them to the golden doors they want to
This essay is a chapter excerpted from Professor Laura Hoopes'
forthcoming book, Breaking Through the Spiral Ceiling: An American
Woman Becomes a DNA_Scientist.