One of the most well-known women in the history of science, Rosalind Franklin, had to defy her father’s wishes to receive her university education. At an institution where women were not allowed to eat their lunch in the same room as men, she earned her PhD and published numerous papers, many of which are still quoted today. Her use of X-ray crystallography was instrumental in the discovery of the elusive structure of our genetic material: a double helix. Some say she paid the ultimate price for her achievements, suggesting her repeated exposure to radiation contributed to her early death from ovarian cancer.
When I attended graduate school, the most significant barrier I faced was competition from my peers, irrespective of gender. It is difficult to imagine how simply being a woman would have drastically changed my experience years earlier. Franklin’s story has helped me to keep into perspective my feelings of sacrifice for little reward during graduate school.
Another famous scientist of the same era, Barbara McClintock is one of two women ever to have been awarded an individual Nobel Prize in the field of science. Unlike Rosalind, Barbara’s father supported her against her mother’s objection to her chosen path. The fear was that it would render her unmarriageable. In addition to major contributions to our understanding of genetic recombination during reproduction, she discovered transposable elements. Using this discovery she showed that genes are responsible for turning physical traits on and off. When she first began her career in genetics, the field had not yet gained acceptance by the scientific community, but by her retirement it was considered by many to be the future of medicine. Her defiant deviation from the conventional path is a nice reminder that anything is possible when you put your mind to it.
While possibly lesser known to the general public, Julia Bell, in her own right left a lasting impression in human medical genetics. Before studying medical genetics was believed to be a clinically useful effort, she began carefully documenting familial diseases as part of the Treasury of Human Inheritance. In my current position, my colleagues and I discuss one of her infamously documented diseases every day – Fragile X syndrome (formerly known as Martin-Bell syndrome).
These three women are just a sampling of those who paved the way for women in science before me. Each of their stories has taught me a valuable lesson in the pursuit of my career goals. This week’s cover story for Nature emphasizes that much work still remains to attain gender equality in the field of science. While these women left big shoes to fill, I believe I owe it to myself and to those who came before me to always strive to do my best and never let anything stand in my way; least of all being a woman.
The author, Felicia Hawthorne, received her PhD in Genetics and Genomics in 2012 from Duke University and currently works at Counsyl.