Friday, June 17, 2016

Barbara McClintock - geneticist

"If you know you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can turn you off... no matter what they say." Barbara McClintock
I love this quote from Nobel prize-winning geneticist Barbara McClintock. It's like the science-y version of, "You do you!" It's the motto she lived her life by, and very much something a self-rescuing princess would follow.

I've been reading about her lately, and while historians might disagree on the sociological impact of her of her achievements and the role she played in history, there is no doubt she was a truly remarkable woman. What I find so fascinating about her, though, is her absolute dedication to doing things her way. She's most well-known for her detailed research on corn chromosomes, a truly wondrous achievement: she discovered its genetic makeup and then studied its evolution. But if you could have asked her what her greatest accomplishment was, she would insist that it was discovering genetic control -- the idea that genes can be switched on or off. Of course, this was something she discovered while conducting her exhaustive research on ... you guessed it... corn.

But before she was a award-winning scientist she was just a person trying to figure out where she wanted to go in life. She tried new things, pushed herself a bit, and learned a lot about who she was. She'd been a bit of a quiet child, content with spending time alone thinking, but when she showed up at college, she took a role in student government and even considered joining a sorority, but quickly decided it wasn't the place for her. She already knew, at the tender age of 17, that she was not made to thrive in a more social sphere.

She began her studies in botany and when she took a class on genetics she was hooked. Fortunately for her, the professor recognized her brilliance and invited her to join the graduate course in genetics. "Obviously, this telephone call cast the die for my future. I remained with genetics thereafter." Isn't it funny how things come together like that sometimes? She had a strong feeling about where she wanted to be and worked to put herself in a place to pursue it, and someone with the power to do something about it recognized that and helped her along, setting her up for huge success.

It was in this program that she began studying corn in earnest. She put together a small team of researchers from both genetics and botany in one of the first projects of its kind. She adapted standard equipment and developed her own techniques to better study the microscopic corn chromosomes. Prior to her research, because of limitation in equipment and methods, few scientists had been able see the chromosomes in corn, much less determine the number of chromosomes in each corn seed and understand their makeup. Using her patience and skills of observation, Barbara was able to detect ten chromosomes and then go on to identify and map specific sets of genes -- a discovery which opened up a new and exciting era in genetic research.

Regrettably, she graduated in the midst of the Great Depression, and even a brilliant scientist who'd published a ground-breaking study had to scrounge for work. She took grand money to study in Germany, but left after a few months because of the political climate. She found some additional grant money to allow her to continue her research at Cornell, but it was all a bit challenging and her future was always a bit uncertain. Despite knowing what she'd truly like to do, she also knew that she had to support herself, and the best way to do that was to find a tenure-track teaching position.

In 1936, in an effort to make the best of a imperfect situation, and even though she disliked teaching, she took an assistant professor position in botany at the University of Missouri, where she could continue her research on corn genetics with the hopes of ascending the academic career ladder. After three years, though, she was fed up with the political aspects of academia, the tedium of teaching, and the entrenched sexism that led her superiors to believe she should be happy with teaching, since most women (they believed) were mainly interested in getting married and leaving. She did leave, though, but not to get married. In 1941 she took a year long position as a visiting professor at Columbia to explore her options. It was during this time she was introduced to the research facilities at Cold Spring Harbor, where she was to spend the rest of her career.

Reducing this period of her life to a few paragraphs doesn't give us a clear picture of what was really going on. In the years between graduation and Cold Spring Harbor she worked tirelessly. She conducted research, she fulfilled her teaching duties, and, most importantly, she worked to advance her career. She was not simply waiting for things to happen to her, she actively worked to improve her situation. Despite not particularly enjoying the social aspects of professional organizations, she was served as the vice president of the Genetics Society of America (she was later made president). While she preferred to work alone, she made a clear effort to stay in contact with other scientists across fields of study, keeping abreast of developments in other fields as well as of opportunities at other facilities. She knew she was not where she was supposed to be, and was earnestly looking for ways to change. Just as important to knowing when you are on the "right track" is knowing when you are not.

But even being on the right track did not guarantee her life would be all sunshine and roses. Or, in her case sunshine and cornfields. While at Cold Spring Harbor she was able to do her best work, work for which she earned the Nobel Prize and secured herself a place of prominence in the history of genetic studies. But she also found that she was on the outside of many of the prominent scientific communities. Her work was not always well understood by others, and her methods may have seemed out of date in the drive for scientific innovation.

Regardless, she continued to continue to strengthen her reputation for ground-breaking research. Her work during the mid- to late-1940s led to a greater understanding about how genes operate during development. In preparation for an experiment that required forced mutations, her innate characteristics of thoughtful observation and careful analysis enabled her to see unexpected activity, which of course she began to study, and which eventually led to her revolutionary theory explaining how complex organisms were made of cells that have the same genome but vastly distinct functions -- how a liver cell and a skin cell can have the same genetic information but do completely different jobs. While her research was widely discussed, it took nearly 20 years and the discovery of genetic transposition of DNA sequences and enzymes for it to be fully embraced.

Historians debate whether this was because she didn't go about it according to the way scientists "were supposed to" -- her watching and waiting for answers to be revealed rather than making predictions and then looking for proof -- or because she was not able to definitively explain the operations of DNA is up for debate between the historians who have written about her life and work. Was she some kind of anomaly herself as a scientist who did not claim to already have the answers but instead was content to wait for them to be revealed through study? Or was she simply at the forefront of research, setting the foundation for genetic researchers to come?

There's inspiration to be found by seeing her as a blend of both loner and luminary -- a woman ahead of her time. Her methods were different enough from her colleagues' to make her seem strange and difficult to support. She was a woman working in a predominately male field and instead of adapting herself to the established norms of scientific research, she did things her own way because she was sure she was "on the right track" despite how that may have seemed to those around her. She could not be turned away. She was right where she needed to be.

That's pretty darn gutsy. And absolutely inspirational!

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