At the encouragement of students, Pomona College Biology Professor Laura Hoopes is writing a memoir about her life. Hoopes held a reading March 8 at Scripps’s Malott Commons in anticipation of the release of her book, Breaking Through the Spiral Ceiling: An American Woman Becomes a DNA Scientist. When it is sold by Amazon, starting May 2, it will be a significant addition to the currently small number of biographies and memoirs on female scientists with families.
“As a woman in science, you never expect you would up and write a book,” Hoopes said. “Or if you did, it would be a textbook.”
In her reading, she discussed her budding interest in science as a college student, her struggles as a professional mother, and the excitement and difficulties inherent in being a female scientist.
Hoopes mentioned various challenges she faced entering the science world as a woman. Not only did she detail stories of unwanted advances in graduate school and being denied participation in a marine ecology trip due to sailors’ superstitions about women being unlucky aboard ships, but she also mentioned facing discrimination by academic institutions.
Hoopes visited California Institute of Technology while on a graduate school tour in 1963, during a time when schools could openly show bias because the Civil Rights Act had not yet been enacted.
“I met with a professor who greeted me with, ‘Before you tell me anything about yourself, I just want to let you know we won’t admit you because you’re a woman. I want you to realize it’s nothing personal,’” Hoopes wrote in an e-mail to The Student Life. “And Princeton refused to even send me a graduate catalog… They may have had a few women in the graduate school, but those women had to make an argument that they ‘had a peculiar need’ for Princeton’s facilities.”
She also addressed the fact that 80 percent of the men in her graduate class have faculty jobs while only 20 percent of the women do.
During the question-and-answer session of her reading, Hoopes received a question about the pessimism that women may develop in such a male-dominated field. Hoopes agreed that it did tend to be an issue.
“When something goes wrong for women, they blame themselves,” she said. “When it goes wrong for men, they go, ‘Oh, well.’”
Fortunately, Hoopes said she did not run into any significant barriers at Pomona. She came to the school as an academic Vice President and received tenure, but then stepped down to become a professor after a battle with breast cancer made her reevaluate what she wanted in life. However, she did mention that 5C women in the scientific field, while having more opportunities than she had, still face many obstacles.
“Space and money have to be allocated, even here in paradise,” Hoopes wrote. “And the allocators tend to be older white males, and thus, they can see science through a lens that blurs out the needs of women.”
Throughout the reading, Hoopes called attention to family and its importance, which became especially clear after the death of her first husband and father of her son.
“Family’s importance cannot be overestimated, and there are some people who put it on the back burner,” she said.
Even though the talk pointed out the conflicts that female scientists may face, several students reported feeling encouraged after the talk.
“I’m really glad that even though she had a career in science, she emphasized family,” Christine Trinh PZ ’14 said. “It’s really inspiring that you can do both. You don’t have to be just a housewife, and you can pursue a career in male-dominated fields that are prestigious.”
While Hoopes will have more time to spend with her family after she retires within the next five years, she will still continue to keep busy by writing.
“I’m going to write novels and nonfiction books, probably also magazine and news articles,” Hoopes said. “I also hope to do some writing with students. I’ve always enjoyed doing research with students, and since molecular biology is so expensive, I can’t continue with that. But all you need for writing is a pen and paper.”