"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 McClintockI 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
That's pretty darn gutsy. And absolutely inspirational!
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