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Professor Laura Mays Hoopes Documents Her Life as a Woman in Science in a New Memoir

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When Professor Laura L. Mays Hoopes was teaching the freshman seminar Biographies of Biologies, her students posed an interesting question: Where were the memoirs written by female scientists who had families?

“They wanted me to find a book that described a woman with a family-career balance to achieve who had stayed in science and made a career of it,” recalls Hoopes, who had assigned bios on more “workaholic” scientists like Nobel Laureates Barbara McClintock and Rita Levi-Montalcini. “The women in the class encouraged me to write a memoir because I kept saying, ‘Well, I can’t find a memoir [like that,] but I did it and so did a lot of my friends!’”

The result of that challenge is her memoir Breaking Through the Spiral Ceiling: An American Woman Becomes a DNA Scientist. First published last March, it is newly available on Amazon.com. Hoopes will talk about her life in science and read from her memoir on Monday, May 2, at 4:15 p.m. in Seaver Commons, room 102. You can also watch video of a talk and reading that she gave at Scripps College in March at the bottom of this story.

Writing her memoir led Hoopes to a new passion: creative writing. Switching from scientific papers to memoir and fiction wasn’t a simple transition for Hoopes so she turned to a natural path for an academic: more education.

“I took Verlyn Klinkenborg’s [‘74] nonfiction class at Pomona and then moved on to classes for a UCLA Certificate in Creative Writing and then to an MFA,” says Hoopes, who is managing her writing, teaching and classes through a one-semester sabbatical and then a phased retirement (teaching one semester per year)—and not much sleep. She is attending San Diego State University for her MFA.

“I don’t want to give up working with students when I retire, and I can’t afford to buy molecular reagents and equipment. But writing is fun to teach and only requires a pen and paper,” says Hoopes who has published fiction and memoir writings in the Christian Science Monitor, Goucher Quarterly, North Carolina Literary Review, The Chaffin Journal, among others.

Hoopes received her AB from Goucher College in biological sciences and received a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship for her Ph.D. from Yale University. She received a National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral fellowship for work at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation and at the University of Colorado Medical School. IN 1973, she joined the faculty of Occidental College and stayed there until she came to Pomona as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college in 1993. She returned to the faculty in 1998.

She teaches both biology and molecular biology and wrote a textbook, Genetics: A Molecular Approach, in 1984. Her research focuses on the molecular biology of aging and DNA repair as a possible age protection mechanism. In 1995, she was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences, which specifically mentioned both her scientific discoveries and her encouragement of women and minority students to enter scientific studies.

Toward this end, Hoopes also curates the “Women in Science” forum on Scitable, a collaborative learning space for science published by Nature.com. She also published a list of 10 ways to keep women in science in The Scientist in 2008. 

Hoopes recounts stories of a postdoctoral scientist being told she was a “traitor to science” when she got pregnant. Another woman, a CEO, had her venture capitalist question her seriousness when she got pregnant. There are many similar stories to be found in the “Women in Science” forum and the comments on Hoopes’ The Scientist article.

“Students have said it’s inspiring to hear someone say you can persist through barriers and you can combine family and career,” says Hoopes, whose writing website can be found at www.lauralmayshoopes.com. “[These are] issues that worry them if they want to go into science.” And Hoopes is spreading the message than you can achieve this balance through her memoir and readings.

Comments on her readings and talks given recently at Scripps College and Oxford College of Emory University attest to students’ need and desire for this information. Afshin Khan ’10 wrote to Hoopes: “It was an absolutely amazing talk. I got to know about things I thought were ancient history but it is surprising how equality has still not reached all phases of life."