Oct 23rd 2017

Rosalind Franklin’s Discovery is in Everyone’s DNA


When you first learned about DNA, you likely saw images of the beautiful double helix structure in your textbook — but you probably haven’t heard about the woman who initially discovered that structure, and it’s time for her to get her dues.

Early Years

Rosalind Franklin (Wikimedia Commons)

English native Rosalind Franklin decided to become a scientist when she was 15. This was an uncommon decision for a young woman in 1930s London, and her father was against higher education for women entirely: He wanted Rosalind to become a social worker, not a scientist. But she would not be dissuaded. In 1941, Rosalind Franklin graduated from Newnham College, Cambridge, with a degree in science.

For several years after graduation, Franklin worked at the British Coal Utilization Research Association on a graduate fellowship, where she contributed to important research on coal and graphite, and earned her Ph.D. Then she moved on to the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de L’Etat, run by Jacques Mering, where she did her post-doctoral research and became an expert in X-ray crystallography. Eventually, Franklin moved back to London to work in John Randall’s lab at King’s College in London, where she met Maurice Wilkins. And although she and Wilkins were colleagues, he initially misunderstood her role and thought she was a technical assistant, which set the tone for the rest of their relationship. This assumption was common at the college, where only males were allowed in the university dining room, and all the men hung out at a men-only pub after work.

Photo 51

Photo 51 (Wikimedia Commons)

Rosalind Franklin, for her part, was not dissuaded by this blatantly gendered behavior. She continued to work hard in Randall’s lab, focusing on the X-ray diffraction studies that would eventually facilitate the double helix theory of DNA. One of Franklin’s X-ray photographs, nicknamed Photo 51, spurred new thinking about the shape of DNA for the men in the lab, and that research was ultimately published under Wilkins’ name in the journal Nature with little-to-no mention of Franklin. She ultimately left the lab after two years due to disagreements with her lab director, Randall, and Wilkins.

Rosalind Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958 at age 37. She spent her final years working on research concerning the molecular structure of viruses, for which her team member, Aaron Klug, would eventually win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982. Four years after her death in 1962, Wilkins and two of his colleagues won the Nobel Prize for their discovery of the double-helix model of DNA, based on a photo taken by Franklin. Franklin’s relentless research and courage weren’t mentioned because the Nobel Committee doesn’t make posthumous nominations, although that decision was highly contentious.

While times have changed, the value of unflappable tenacity has not. Northrop Grumman is looking for innovators like Franklin who believe in breaking boundaries — people who want to tackle problems that society says can’t be solved.

If this sounds like you, check out their careers page.

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