Today marks the International Women’s Day, marking the progress of women socially, economically, culturally and politically, and it is worth mentioning the progress that women have made academically as well. We have seen a huge increase in the women fulfilling scientific careers, and most importantly their work is being recognised.
I was discussing a paper with my supervisor (that’s what us keen-bean scientists do), and I noticed that ‘Khan’, the last name of the author of the paper, was referred to my supervisor as a ‘she’. This doesn’t seem too spectacular, only that for the past six months I was under the impression that the author was male. Not once had she been referred to as a ‘he’, but it was my own assumption that the scientist was male. As a female scientist myself, I was quite embarrassed that I had thought that, and it seemed ironic that these assumptions were the sort that were holding female scientists like myself from being recognised.
This blog post commemorates a woman in science who deserves far more recognition than she receives in this present day; Rosalind Franklin.
Does the name ‘Franklin’ ring a bell? Perhaps ‘Watson and Crick’ is a more familiar term to those with some background in genetics. The ‘Structure of DNA’, which was published way back in 1953, is considered a cornerstone of the genetics movement. Geneticists now had concrete evidence that DNA had a helical structure and that for DNA to replicate, this helix unwound and free nucleotides (the building blocks that make up DNA) were able to bind to each strand to generate new DNA. In 1958, James Watson and Francis Crick received the Nobel Prize for this discovery.; a discovery which wouldn’t have come about if it wasn’t for Rosalind Franklin.
Rosalind Franklin established herself in x-ray crystallography, which helped her to contribute to the structure of RNA, viruses, coal and graphite. She was then appointed at King’s College London, her task was to use her experience to have a look at the structure of DNA. This was at a time when they couldn’t decide whether it was proteins or DNA which was the hereditary material (i.e. the reason why you inherited your blue eyes from your Mum) so there was a race to see who could determine which one it was first. Whilst she was there, she generated the notorious X-ray diffraction image Photo 51. The importance of this photo in particular was that it showed the helical structure of DNA pretty well.
At Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick required collaboration with King’s for X-ray evidence of DNA’s helical structure. Without Franklin’s permission, her supervisor Maurice Wilkins showed the Photo 51 to Watson, and another member of the lab showed them her detailed notes and other X-ray images. WITHOUT HER PERMISSION! The cheek of it.
It came as no surprise that with this evidence, Watson and Crick were able to publish the paper which described the structure of DNA and did not credit King’s College with this image at all. Wilkins was annoyed that his lab hadn’t been acknowledged, but he did go on to share the Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick.
Did Rosalind Franklin receive the Nobel Prize for generating the critical image? No.
Was Rosalind Franklin ever able to stick up for herself? No, as Rosalind Franklin had passed away at the age of 37 from Ovarian cancer before she was able to do so.
Were Watson and Crick respectful of her contribution? Sadly, the answer is no again. It was many years later that Photo 51 was accredited to her.
Having read the autobiography ‘Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA’ by Brenda Maddocks, the thing that stood out to me was that she was relatable. It is easy to associate a scientist as being someone on the verge of having an obsession with science and spends their whole time in the lab, but there was actually far more to her than that. As a child she was described as ‘alarmingly clever’, which is a shame that her family were intimidated by a bright girl. She enjoyed sport and long walks across mountain ranges in Europe, as well as having very close friends. It is therefore unfair that many of her male counterparts personally attacked her, describing her as ‘arrogant’ and ‘unattractive’ rather than noting how good of a scientist she was. There is also an incident where I empathised with the feelings she had towards a male colleague of hers, and the sacrifices she had to make that are like other women who dedicate their life to science.
Scientific research is still challenging for women to become established, often having to give up motherhood as a result. A female lecturer once told us the story of a woman who had recently given birth and required somewhere to breastfeed, and the only place she could be accommodated was in a caretaker’s closet. Isn’t it unfair that women in science have to put up with that? Although now we are lucky to live in a society that is far more conscious of gender imbalance, it is still questionable whether enough has been done about it. Although the amount of females in biology and chemistry has increased, computer science and physics are still severely underrepresented. The Royal Society remains severely underrepresented by women, and out of the 293 people that have won the Nobel Prize since 1901, only 48 have been female.
With reference to Franklin’s achievements, the value of the contributions of females, scientists and in general, should no longer be underestimated. (*Insert emoji of a flexed bicep*)