Women in Science

By Madeleine Stiffler

Throughout history, women in science have made incredible innovations. Barbara McClintok, an American scientist and cytogeneticist transformed medicine as she challenged existing concepts of what genes were capable of when she discovered that some genes could be mobile. Her studies of chromosome breakage in maize led her to discover a chromosome-breaking locus that could change its position within a chromosome. McClintok’s phenomenal discoveries impacted everything from genetic engineering to cancer research which led to her being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983 for her discovery. Initiating a groundbreaking accomplishment, she became the first American woman to win an unshared Nobel Prize. 

Next, Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman whose cancer cell research became the source of the HeLa cell line, the first preserved human cell line and one of the most crucial cell lines in medical research. Lacks’ legacy began in 1951 when the young mother of five visited The Johns Hopkins Hospital seeking treatment for persistent vaginal bleeding. Upon her examination, a large malignant tumor was discovered on her cervix. A sample of her cancer cells retrieved during a biopsy were sent to Dr. George Gey’s nearby tissue lab at the hospital. Dr. Gey would soon discover that Lacks’ cells were unlike any of the others he had ever seen: where other cells would die,  Lacks’ cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours. Today, these HeLa cells (derived from the first two letters of her first and last name) are utilized to study and understand the impact of toxins, drugs, hormones, and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without requiring testing on humans. HeLa cells have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work, and even played a crucial role in the development of the polio and COVID-19 vaccines. 

Lastly, Rosalind Franklin was a famous chemist who used a technique called X-ray crystallography, which revealed the helical shape of the DNA molecule. Unfortunately, her colleagues James Watson and Francis Crick received the credit for the discovery and Franklin was not acknowledged for her discoveries until after her death. Despite her contributions to science, Franklin remained in the shadows of science history. A simple misunderstanding resulted in immediate friction between Wilkins (another colleague) and Franklin, and their clashing personalities served to deepen the divide. The two were to work together on finding the structure of DNA, but their conflicts led to them working in relative isolation. While this suited Franklin, Wilkins went looking for company at “the Cavendish” laboratory in Cambridge where his friend Francis Crick was working with James Watson on building a model of the DNA molecule.Unknown to Franklin, Watson and Crick saw some of her unpublished data, including the beautiful “photo 51,” shown to Watson by Wilkins. This X-ray diffraction picture of a DNA molecule was Watson’s inspiration (the pattern was clearly a helix). Using Franklin’s photograph and their own data, Watson and Crick created their famous DNA model. Franklin’s contribution was not acknowledged, but after her death Crick said that her contribution had been critical.

Women in science have contributed astonishing research and discoveries. Having come face-to-face with adversity, these empowering and inspirational women deserve to be celebrated and recognized every month, not just during Women’s History Month.