Guest post by JessTheChemist

’Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call “boys with toys.”’

This poorly conceived comment by Shrinivas Kulkarni, an astronomy and planetary science professor at the California Institute of Technology, was made on National Public Radio (NPR)  and within hours, Twitter was abuzz with activity. Using the hashtag #girlswithtoys, female scientists from all over the world began posting pictures of themselves with their ‘toys’ – from telescopes to distillation kits to robots – to show that girls are scientists with fun toys too! This flippant comment highlights the unconscious bias that is all too common in the science world as it perpetuates the notion that science is a man’s world. The list of Nobel prize in chemistry winners also reflects this attitude, with only four females having won the prize to date. Of course, there have been many highly influential and talented women who were worthy of prize.

Blue plaque on SW10, Drayton Gardens, Donovan Court
By Gareth E Kegg – CC-BY-SA

This month’s blog will concentrate on the unsung hero of the discovery of the structure of DNA, Rosalind Franklin. Franklin’s x-ray diffraction images, which implied a helical structure for DNA, were key in determining the structure of DNA. James Watson and Francis Crick used this information in their Nature publication in 1953, where they gave Franklin and Maurice Wilkins an acknowledgement for their contributions. In 1962, Watson, Crick and Wilkins won the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for their work on the structure of DNA but Franklin was left empty handed. Franklin died in 1958 and only living people can win the Nobel prize, so sharing the 1962 Nobel prize was not possible. However, the Nobel archives show that no one ever nominated her for the prize in physiology or medicine, or even the chemistry prize, despite the fact that her findings were undoubtedly significant to the discovery.

As you can see from her academic family tree, Franklin is connected to a considerable number of Nobel prize winners in medicine or physiology, physics and chemistry. In 1938, Franklin began her studies in chemistry (natural sciences) at Cambridge University and remained there to undertake physical chemistry research under Ronald Norrish, who won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1967 for his flash photolysis research. In 1951, Franklin began work at King’s College as a research associate under Sir John Randall, alongside Wilkins and Raymond Gosling. It was at Kings College that Franklin applied her x-ray diffraction expertise to the structure of DNA.

Through Kenneth Holmes, Franklin is also connected to Aaron Klug who won the 1982 Nobel prize in chemistry for his research on crystallographic electron microscopy and his structural elucidation of biologically important nucleic acid-protein complexes. Franklin also worked with Klug during her time at Birkbeck College and he became a supporter and advocate – writing a Nature article on how Franklin came to find the correct structure of DNA  and taking part in an interview on what it was like working with her. During her time at Birkbeck College, Franklin worked under John Bernal, himself a pioneer in x-ray crystallography within molecular biology. Bernal began his illustrious research career under the supervision of William Bragg, who shared the1915 Nobel prize in physics with his son for their x-ray diffraction research.

It is a great shame that Franklin could not share 1962 prize for her key role in determining the structure of DNA, however, I do hope that she is remembered as one of the great women in science.

If you are a woman in science, why not head to Twitter and post your picture with a chemistry tool or instrument, using the hashtag #girlswithtoys, to show the world that chemistry girls have cool toys too!

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