Saturday, February 4, 2012

Standing in the shadows

Rosalind Franklin

Have you ever had to stand in the sidelines with little else to do but bite the inside of your cheeks, while you watch someone else get all the credit for your work? Was their fanfare so big that when all was said and done, you were less than an afterthought to your own accomplishment?

If you paid attention in science class, chances are you’ve heard of Francis Crick and James Watson. But you may not have heard about Rosalind Franklin.

In a pre-feminist age where most women stayed pretty far from the lab, Franklin broke ground with scientific discovery. She made a name for herself as a biophysicist, physical chemist and an X-ray crystallographer. In fact, she was so good, that Crick and Watson made their groundbreaking discovery of DNA based on her preliminary research.

She made revolutionary discoveries with regard to DNA. Unpublished drafts of her paper show her reaching the same conclusions, as Crick and Watson. She even caught a mistake on Crick and Watson’s diagram, pointing it out to them.

She received little accolade for her part, aside from a posthumous mention of the huge role she played in Watson’s book.

Encouraged by her father, she took physics and chemistry at a very young age. She decided at 15 that she wanted to be a scientist. Besides doing extensive research on physical chemistry, gas phase chromotology, carbon and coal, molecular biology.

She studied X-ray diffraction in Paris. She got a research fellowship at Kings College in London. She wanted her to use the diffraction techniques on DNA, instead of X-rays.

Shockingly, she was content to stand in the shadows with regard to this groundbreaking discovery. She was just interested in the truth being known. She just continued her work as usual. She went on to publish 17 papers after this discovery.

In The Double Helix by Watson characterizes her has difficult and stubborn. But who wouldn’t be difficult and stubborn with regard to their passions? She had a habit of looking people directly in the eyes could sometimes be perceived as abrasive, and probably a little unnerving especially to men of that day.

She later teamed up with soft-spoken, Maurice Wilkins, whom she didn’t get along with too well. He was quiet and shy contrasted with her perceived domineering nature, and they disagreed about the structure of DNA. He ended up stealing her research.

Astoundingly, she later became friends with Crick and Watson. The DNA race was never discussed.

Watson also had an about face with regard to Franklin, who ended his book with a nice tribute to her.

In those days, they didn’t know the importance of wearing a lead apron while doing X-rays. As a result she developed ovarian cancer. She died 4 years before Watson and Crick received the Nobel prize for “their” discovery.

c. 2012

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