Hopi Hoekstra

[seen in the image standing on the right dressed, appropriately, as a mouse] spent her middle school years in northern California. As a native Californian myself, I couldn’t help but relate to this displaced-to-the-East-Coast scientist. Read on to learn what women in science inspired her, how she re-articulated her first mouse skeleton with the help of her mom, and that “Hopi” isn’t actually her given name.

Lea: Do any memorable classroom moments stand out from middle school?

Hopi: I remember being thankful that my last name started with “H” because we were often seated in alphabetical order, which meant I often was seated next to Greg Fulford, who I thought was the cutest boy in the school.

What was your biggest worry in middle school?

Not being popular.

What did your parents want you to be when you grew up? What did they do?

My mom is a teacher, and my dad is an engineer/physicist. So, as a science professor, I am pretty much a perfect hybrid between the two. My mom loved the outdoors, and took my brother and me on outdoor adventures all the time. If I had my way, I would have moved the whole family to a farm.

I don’t think my parents had specific career aspirations for me. They just wanted me to be happy and self-sufficient.

If I had my way, I would have moved the whole family to a farm.
What were your favorite subjects in school? Why?

In middle school, my favorite subject was French, probably because we were given French names in class. My French name was “Sophie,” which I much preferred over “Hopi.” I spent most of middle school trying to convince my life-long friends to call me “Dani” as my given name is Danielle. It totally didn’t work. I was “Hopi,” a Dutch term of endearment for a baby, from the day I was brought back from the hospital.

Is there something you learned in middle school that has really stuck with you?

I learned how much I hated the “home ec” (i.e., home economics) course that all girls were required to take. (Wow, this is making me feel OLD). We learned cooking, sewing, cleaning, money management…. I remember one assignment was to plan a menu and prepare dinner for your family. What a disaster that was: soggy pizza and a carrot cake for which I forgot to add flour. I am still not a good cook, but I am trying!

Were you in any clubs, have hobbies or extra curricular activities?

I played a lot sports — my favorites were volleyball and soccer. I played through high school, and then played volleyball for the UC Berkeley Pac10 women’s team for two years before deciding to concentrate on my studies (I wanted to take chemistry and biology labs which always overlapped with our afternoon practices or our travel schedule). I knew, at 5′ 7″, I wasn’t going to be a professional volleyball player, although many friends on the team did go on to the pro beach circuit and/or to the Olympics. I just wasn’t that tall, or that good.

How did you get into science?

It wasn’t until my second year of college, when I decide that my chosen major, political science, just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was really was fascinated with the outdoors and animal diversity, so I took a chance and signed up for the big intro biology, physics and chemistry courses and never looked back.

If you could give your middle school or just younger self some advice what would it be?

That’s an easy answer: Don’t spend so much time worrying about what other people think of you.

What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about, considering your life?

That I don’t live in California, or even the West Coast…..

Is there something (a memento) that you keep with you at work from childhood? Why? What was its significance?

If you were to look around my office you may think so. My office is full of mouse/rodent trinkets — from adorable stuffed animals to natural history prints, but those are mostly gifts I have received from students or colleagues.

When did you go to your first concert and what band or artist was playing?

During my freshman year of high school, a friend and I paid an upperclassman to drive us to see The Police in concert. Or, maybe it was Sting. It was right around the time Sting began to tour on his own. In either case, it was a great concert, and I remember coming home hoarse. My most memorable concert, without a doubt, was The Grateful Dead in Oakland, CA, on Halloween.

Did you play an instrument? Did your parents have to force you to practice or did you do it on your own?

I played the flute and then switched to the saxophone. I was in a jazz band very briefly. I have to admit I wasn’t especially musical. In fact, I have been referred to as “the world’s worst singer.”

In fact, I have been referred to as “the world’s worst singer.”
When you were a child, what did you dream of becoming one day?

Marlin Perkins from the TV show “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” which would play every Sunday night. We would watch it as a family. He was the American equivalent of David Attenborough. I remember being fascinated particularly by his adventures in Africa; I dreamed of seeing herds of wildebeests roaming across the savannah, hippos bathing in the rivers, and zebras drinking at waterholes (about to be pounced on by lions hiding in the brush nearby).

What were some of your favorite books growing up? 

My favorite book was Out of Africa. I loved the idea of moving to an exotic land, filled with adventure, and starting a new life. I was particularly taken with Africa. I have a first edition copy of the book that I received as a gift — one of my most prized possessions.

How much did you play outside? Where?

Growing up in California, I was outside all the time. We climbed trees, rode bikes, camped out in tents; we roamed all around the neighborhood. There were also loads of nature preserves and parks in our neighborhood. We drove to the beach a lot, and took family trips to Yosemite.

Did you collect anything? 

I collected animals. I had a “bug jar” to capture insects (mostly ladybugs and roly polys), and my brother and I used a big yellow bucket to collect tadpoles at Lake Lagunita on the nearby Stanford campus and try to raise frogs. We also caught fence lizards in our backyard. I also remember collecting owl pellets with my mom, soaking them in hot water, and trying to re-articulate the mouse skeletons inside.

I also remember collecting owl pellets with my mom, soaking them in hot water, and trying to re-articulate the mouse skeletons inside.
Did you ever have a professional crisis? Did you ever think about throwing in the academic towel?

I can’t think of a particular crisis, but at each stage in my career I had a secret Plan B, which was well thought out but reserved for emergencies: if I didn’t get a postdoc, or I didn’t get a faculty position, or if I didn’t get tenure. My attitude is to try my hardest to create a career in science, but if it didn’t work out, I would find another career to pursue.

Why or when did you decide to become a scientist?

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a scientist. I had that classic image of a scientist being an old, crazy, grey-haired man in a lab coat with glasses that was socially awkward. It was only after I started doing research as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley that I even knew what being a scientist was all about. There, I had an inspirational mentor, Dr. Bob Full, who invited me to do research in his lab. I fell in love with the research process and experienced the excitement associated with discovery.

I fell in love with the research process and experienced the excitement associated with discovery.
What fascinated you as a kid?

Animals, like most kids. I had tons of pets: hamsters, rabbits, dogs, chickens, ducks, lizards, snakes.

Who were your adult role models? What about them did you/do you emulate?

I was fascinated with Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, because they were both passionate and brave. In retrospect, I think it was important that there were these well-known female scientists who I could identify with.

How often did someone tell you that you were wrong? Are there particularly memorable occasions? 

There were several cases where others warned me that my proposed experiments wouldn’t work. In some cases, the projects were admittedly risky. But, as scientists, we have to take some risks in order to push the field forward.

What were your favorite outside play places?

I love the ocean. It is when I feel like life gains some perspective. The ocean always looks so large, boundless even, which reminds me that I am only a small part of a much bigger world. My parents will tell you that I always wanted to go to the beach, as often as possible.

I love the ocean. It is when I feel like life gains some perspective.
Did you get into trouble at school?

In middle school, my best friend Annelie and I were constantly getting in trouble for talking and for passing notes. Whenever we were in the same class, the teacher would physically separate us — one of us would be assigned to a desk in the front right of the room and the other the back left.

Otherwise I was a pretty good kid.


Dr. Hopi Hoekstra is an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Harvard University. She is an Alexander Agassiz Professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. Additionally she is the Curator of Mammals at the Museum of Comparative Zoology . In her recent travels north of the Arctic Circle, between excellent talks on neuroscience, she went dogsledding and took a boat ride in search of puffins, whales and polar bears. In her free time she goes on adventures with her son, who at two years old has already been to five different countries for scientific meetings. He is an avid tricyclist, lover of all things scaly, and can be found running the halls of the Harvard Museum of Natural History. We are already in talks about his “Before They Were Scientists” feature which, no doubt, will involve a Halloween costume of the dinosaur variety. Follow Hopi on Twitter @HopiHoekstra