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MIT's Hopkins To Give Pittman Lecture

Dr. Nancy Hopkins, leader of an intensive effort to find developmental genes in the zebrafish genome and a champion of gender equity in academia, will deliver the NIH Director's Margaret Pittman Lecture on Wednesday, Nov. 1 at 3 p.m. in Masur Auditorium, Bldg. 10.

Hopkins is the Amgen professor of biology in the department of cancer research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has embarked on an ambitious effort to identify 20 to 30 percent of the genes controlling normal development and behavior from the genome of the zebrafish, Danio rerio. Researchers hope that identification of these genes in zebrafish will provide clues for identifying equivalent genes in human beings, eventually leading to new treatments for numerous developmental disorders.

Dr. Nancy Hopkins of MIT will give the Pittman Lecture. The lecture series honors Dr. Margaret Pittman, a world leader in vaccine research and development who was named the first woman laboratory chief at NIH. Pittman headed the laboratory of bacterial products in what was then the Division of Biologics Standards, from 1958 to 1971. She died in August 1995.

A staple of home aquarists the world over, these small silvery fish with horizontal blue stripes have in recent years also become a mainstay of developmental biologists. The fish, which may reach a length of 2 ½ inches, offer several advantages over other animal models of development. Zebrafish are comparatively inexpensive to house, produce large numbers of offspring, and follow the typical vertebrate path of development. They also have clear eggs and embryos that develop outside the mother, offering an unobstructed view of early embryonic development.

To study developmental defects, researchers typically induce random mutations in zebrafish, then breed strains of the fish having a particular defect. Typically, mutations are induced by exposing the adult fish to chemicals. Hopkins and her colleagues, however, have pioneered a new technique whereby they expose the fish to retroviruses. The viral DNA sequences insert themselves into the DNA of the zebrafish, breaking apart individual genes and causing mutations. Because the mutations have been "flagged" by the adjacent viral DNA, they are much easier to identify than are chemical mutations.

Hopkins is also known for her pioneering role in fostering gender equity in academia. In 1993, she lodged a complaint with MIT officials, saying that she had been denied the resources afforded her male colleagues. She later led an internal study which found that the School of Science had inadvertently discriminated against its women scientists. Subsequently, university officials acknowledged a pattern of gender bias, and began compensating its women researchers. Many other universities have since begun investigations of gender bias in their own institutions.

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