A Milestone for Science, and for Women

A Milestone for Science, and for Women

By Shana O. Kelley

This month marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most significant advances in modern science: the discovery of the DNA double helix. The elucidation of the structure of the genetic material by British scientists has opened countless areas of scientific inquiry and made possible numerous new technologies that have transformed medicine and biological research.

The story behind the breakthrough also illustrates that the last 50 years have brought a significant improvement in the climate for female scientists.

The discovery of DNA's helical structure was the culmination of an international effort that began in the 1880s, when European and American scientists deduced that the nuclei of cells contained a complex composite of phosphorus, carbohydrate and nitrogenous compounds. By the 1940s, scientists had determined that this material was the carrier of genetic information in cells. However, the problem of its precise structure seemed intractable, with erroneous proposals and assumptions regularly derailing the search. Many scientists were baffled and dropped out of the race.

In the early 1950s, Cambridge University researcher James Watson was working with graduate student Frances Crick to deduce the structure of DNA using models. Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, researchers at King's College in London, were using X-ray diffraction methods. By most accounts, Watson and Crick were very close to having the correct structure modeled, but aspects of it remained problematic. Independently, Franklin was generating diffraction data indicating that the structure had a regular repeat and that the portion containing carbohydrate and phosphate was on the outside. Wilkins showed Franklin's data to Watson and Crick, reportedly without her consent. Upon seeing it, they recognized an error in their model and the correct structure was immediately evident.

This structure was a beautifully symmetric double helix: two strands running in opposite direction held together by molecular interactions between complementary portions of each strand. A reasonable proposal for how genetic information could be copied followed from the structure, as each strand could be used as a template for the synthesis of a corresponding strand that would form an identical helix. Watson and Crick published their ideas in Nature in April 1953, with Franklin and Wilkins publishing separate supporting articles in the same issue.

Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1962. Franklin had died of cancer in 1958 at age 37 and therefore did not share the prize - a fact that has skewed recognition away from her contribution.

All accounts of the discovery indicate that Rosalind Franklin encountered significant resistance throughout her participation in the project. Her role in the discovery, and even her appointment at King's College, was a reflection of her tough nature and persistence. At that time, women chemists usually were not much more than technical assistants, and the academic environment was not supportive of independent female scientists. Franklin's colleague, Wilkins, refused to accept her as an equal, and Watson and Crick did not hide the fact that they did not consider her to be a serious scientist.

Watson's book, The Double Helix, reflects the attitudes women scientists faced at that time. On the friction between Wilkins and Franklin, he remarks: "The thought could not be avoided that the best place for a feminist is in another person's lab." In hindsight, Watson recognizes that his team under-valued Franklin's contribution, "realizing years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world that often regards women as mere diversions to serious thinking."

Fifty years later, although still poorly represented in academia, women are accepted members of the scientific community. The improved climate has resulted in part from the efforts of modern female researchers, who have demonstrated that the ability to make high-impact scientific discoveries has nothing to do with gender.

However, more progress is needed to encourage talented women to pursue careers in science. In the United States, for example, about forty percent of science majors are women, but the gender gap grows in Ph.D. programs and explodes for tenure-track academic positions. An intensive effort to recruit talented women into scientific disciplines will be required to balance these numbers. This effort should include encouraging young women to realize their aptitude towards math and science early in the educational process.

In addition, helping young female scientists to cultivate the tenacity of Rosalind Franklin, who remained undeterred by the challenges of science or gender bias, is essential. Through strong will and a refusal to be excluded, she continued her work and, in the end, produced the essential data. While today's female scientists do not face such severe discrimination, they must have unshakable confidence and commitment to succeed in high-level positions in what is still a male-dominated field.

Franklin's perseverance changed the face of modern chemistry. Her achievements should encourage those of us starting our careers a half-century later.

Shana O. Kelley is an assistant professor in the Chemistry Department.

 

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