Boston Globe: Mary-Lou Pardue, MIT professor whose anti-bias efforts lifted women in science, dies at 90

Boston Globe: Mary-Lou Pardue, MIT professor whose anti-bias efforts lifted women in science, dies at 90

Her research formed the foundation for understanding the structure of chromosomes.

Bryan Marquard | Boston Globe
July 7, 2024

Amid the clatter of lunchtime dishes, Mary-Lou Pardue sat across from Nancy Hopkins one day in 1994 in a café not far from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reading a letter Hopkins had drafted.

Both were MIT professors and scientists, and Hopkins, the younger of the two, had gathered data showing women on the faculty were routinely discriminated against in numerous ways. Hopkins wanted to send her findings to the school’s president, but sought a blessing of sorts from Dr. Pardue, the first woman in MIT’s School of Science to be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.

“I chose Mary-Lou as the person whose judgment would mean the most to me. I had this huge respect for her as a scientist before I even met her,” Hopkins recalled in an interview.

Dr. Pardue read the letter “very slowly and put it down on the table and said, ‘I agree with this letter, every word. I want to sign it and think you should send it to the president,’ ” Hopkins said. “And that changed my life, and ultimately it changed MIT. That was, to me, the defining moment for women at MIT.”

A highly regarded cellular and molecular biologist whose work formed the foundation for key advancements and discoveries in understanding the structure of chromosomes, Dr. Pardue died June 1 in Youville Assisted Living in Cambridge.

She was 90, had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and her health had been failing.

The first Boris Magasanik professor of biology at MIT, Dr. Pardue had also been an American Academy of Arts and Sciences fellow, and was a past president of the Genetics Society of America and the American Society for Cell Biology.

Her efforts at MIT 30 years ago with Hopkins and other female professors, however, are still having a ripple effect through academia across the country and around the world.

When Dr. Pardue told Hopkins she wanted to sign the letter about bias against women and send it to MIT’s president, “I knew the world had shifted,” said Hopkins, whose efforts with Dr. Pardue and others were documented in “The Exceptions,” a 2023 book by New York Times reporter Kate Zernike, who initially broke the story as a Boston Globe reporter.

“I could sense the power of it: Two women, saying the same thing, one of them a member of the National Academy of Sciences,” Hopkins said. “She looked at me and felt the same thing, that two women together had power.”

They reached out to other tenured female professors at MIT, and almost all co-signed the letter, which they presented to the president. In 1995, MIT created the Committee on the Status of Women Faculty, whose 1999 report documented the systematic bias that women in the School of Science were facing.

That report, and MIT’s subsequent efforts to address its failings, led to similar efforts at universities across the country.

“It was life-changing, but that it could change the world? This is not something that occurred to me then,” Hopkins said, laughing at the memory.

As a young scientist, Dr. Pardue and Joseph Gall, who had been her doctoral adviser at Yale University, developed an “in situ hybridization” technique that “led to many discoveries, including critical advancements in developmental biology, our understanding of embryonic development, and the structure of chromosomes,” MIT said in its tribute to Dr. Pardue.

“In situ hybridization was a crucial step toward genomics. In some ways you could call it the first genomic technique,” said Allan Spradling, an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institution.

“Her research is underappreciated,” said Spradling, who also is a former director of the embryology department at the Carnegie Institution for Science. “It’s all tied into so many momentous events in the history of genomics.”

Kerry Kelley, who formerly managed Dr. Pardue’s lab, and is now manager of the Yilmaz Lab at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, said that “Mary-Lou was a giant of her time.”

Continuing to work in her lab after the onset of Parkinson’s, Dr. Pardue was “gracious, kind, smart as a whip, and just full of great stories,” Kelley said.

The techniques that Dr. Pardue and Gall developed are now used in thousands of labs around the world, said Thomas Cech, a former post-doctoral student of Dr. Pardue’s who shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

“It was one of those discoveries which seemed important at the time and certainly attracted many of us to her laboratory,” he said, “but in retrospect, we had no idea how powerful this would become.”

Born on Sept. 15, 1933, Mary-Lou Pardue grew up in and around Lexington, Ky.

Her father, Louis Pardue, was a dean at Virginia Tech. Her mother, Mary Allie Marshall Pardue, had been a teacher before marrying. Her younger brother, William, who died in 2016, was a scientist in the nuclear industry.

Dr. Pardue graduated in 1955 from the College of William and Mary with a bachelor’s degree in biology.

After working in research, she received a master’s in radiation biology in 1959 from the University of Tennessee and a doctorate in biology in 1970 from Yale University.

She also did postdoctoral work at the University of Edinburgh before seeking a faculty position in the United States. MIT turned her down with a letter at first, and then recruited her for an associate professor position in 1972 after hearing about her work and lectures, “which I thought was as sincere an apology as you can get,” she said with a laugh in a video forum that MIT posted online.

Dr. Pardue, whose marriage in her graduate student years ended in divorce, was an avid hiker in New Hampshire’s White Mountains who also took on distant challenging terrain. She agreed to the Genetics Society presidency because on the way home from an international meeting in India she could go trekking in Nepal’s Annapurna range.

“She was a fun person to be around,” said Susan A. Gerbi, the George Eggleston professor of biochemistry emerita at Brown University, and a graduate school contemporary of Dr. Pardue’s at Yale.

“She had a twinkle in her eye, which you can see even if you look at the seminar she gave on YouTube,” Gerbi said. “And she was very smart and had good insights.”

Over the years, Dr. Pardue was close to her brother’s family, spending time with them during the winter holidays and going along on skiing and camping trips.

“A lot of times you run into scientists who are quite intelligent and can’t relate to people on a personal level,” said her nephew, Todd Pardue of Fairfax Station, Va. “She would take the time to talk to you. She was a very special person.”

He and his sister, Sara Pardue Gibson of Columbus, Ohio, are their aunt’s closest survivors. Plans for a celebration of Dr. Pardue’s life and work are pending.

While fielding questions during her MIT talk that was recorded for a video, Dr. Pardue smiled and said in a voice still rich with the Kentucky accent of her youth that as a researcher, “the greatest joy is when an experiment you didn’t think would work, works.”

Such clear, concise lessons were among those she imparted to generations of young scientists who worked in her labs, including at MIT, where she was a professor for more than 30 years.

“She was a great mentor who was as proud of her scientific children and grandchildren as she was of her own accomplishments. That’s not the way all scientists look at things,” said Ky Lowenhaupt, manager of the Biophysical Instrumentation Facility at MIT.

Lowenhaupt said Dr. Pardue “was a role model of what women in science can be at a time when there weren’t a lot of those, and a trailblazer as a woman — but also a trailblazer as a scientist who didn’t do things along the path that other people took.”