Margaret Oakley Dayhoff


Margaret Oakley Dayhoff (1925-1983) is considered by many to be the founder of bioinformatics, a field that designs and applies computational methods to biology. Today, if someone is interested in a particular protein, they can look it up in online databases, similarly to looking up a word in an encyclopedia. Many of us take these databases for granted, but Dayhoff, faced with lots of data and only primitive computers (think punch-cards) didn’t have that luxury, so she created it.

Similar to how genes are made up of the DNA base “letters,” proteins are made up of amino acids. But, while there are only 4 DNA bases, there are 20 amino acids. Sometimes a scientist may know how a protein is “spelled” but not what it is or what it does.  Dayhoff wanted to create an atlas of known proteins, so that researchers could look up their “mystery” proteins and see what’s known about them and how they may be related to other proteins. Even though there were less than 100 protein sequences known at the time, the large amino acid alphabet meant she was faced with a staggering amount of data, especially since each amino acid was typically represented by a 3-letter code. To help address this problem, she shortened these codes to single letters, making it easier for researches to search for a protein based on its spelling. The simplified code also helped her develop tools to compare the spelling of similar proteins and predict how they are related evolutionarily.

Dayhoff was born in Philadelphia in 1925. She received a PhD in chemistry from Columbia University followed by postdoctoral research at the Rockefeller Institute and the University of Maryland. She became a professor at Georgetown University Medical Center and associate director of the National Biomedical Research Foundation. She served as secretary and later president of the Biophysical Society. Dayhoff’s life was tragically cut short by a heart attack at the age of 57. The Biophysical Society established an award in her honor to support early career female biophysicists. Next time you use an online protein database, thank Margaret Oakley Dayhoff!

Photo credit: Ruth Dayhoff

Audrey Shields Penn


Audrey Shields Penn was the first African-American woman to serve as acting director of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) institute. Heading a governmental biomedical science agency is no easy task – you’re responsible for overseeing groundbreaking research, the training of doctors and scientists, and working with patients, the public, and policymakers. And if you’re an African American woman, you need to add overcoming racial and gender discrimination to that list of job requirements. Yet, somehow, as director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Audrey Shields Penn, was able to do it all with grace.

Penn was born in New York in 1934 and received a degree in chemistry from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. She loved chemistry and the use of basic research to help people with diseases, but knew she wanted a career that would allow her more contact with those people she was helping, so she decided to go into medicine. She received a medical degree from Columbia University, where her entering class was only 10% female and she was one of only a couple of minority students. Fascinated by the brain and the mysteries it holds, she pursued specialty training in neurology at Columbia, where she became a professor.

In addition to being an active physician, she stayed close to her chemistry roots, studying the biochemical basis of myasthenia gravis as a NINDS special fellow. She went on to become a world-renowned expert in this autoimmune neuromuscular disorder that causes muscle weakness.

In 1995, she was named Deputy Director of NINDS, and she served as Acting Director from December 1997 to July 1998 and January 2001 to September 2003. After a decade as deputy director, she “retired” from the post to serve as special advisor to the Director, working with NIND’s Office of Minority Health and Research. She helped develop a Specialized Neuroscience Research Program (SNRP) to advance opportunities for minorities in neuroscience.

Edith Flanigen


Zeloite: it’s not just a great Scrabble word; it’s also a type of microporous mineral with many uses, as shown by this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Edith Flanigen. Flanigen was born in 1929 in Buffalo, New York. In high school, she and her two sisters were so inspired by their chemistry teacher that all three went on to receive graduate degrees in chemistry. 

After receiving a Master’s degree in inorganic physical chemistry from Syracuse University, Edith took a job at the Union Carbide, an chemical production company. After two decades of work, she became the first woman at Union Carbine to be named a corporate research fellow and, later, a senior corporate research fellow. Later in her career, she was transferred to Union Carbine’s sister company, Universal Oil Products (UOP), where she became a full research fellow before retiring in 1994 (although she continued to serve as a consultant for many years). 

Over the course of her career, Flanigen invented over 200 synthetic materials, but she is best known for one specific material, zeolite Y. Zeolites are minerals containing alumina and silica connected to form a porous structure - depending on their size and shape, the holes trap particular molecules while letting other molecules flow through. This “molecular sieve” property makes zeolites useful for a variety of applications including water purifiers. Additionally, zeolites can serve as catalysts (speeding up chemical reactions) by trapping molecules within the material’s “cages,” encouraging them in interact.

Zeolites occur naturally as byproducts of volcanic eruptions, but these natural zeolites contain impurities and have inconsistent pore sizes that limit their usefulness. Flanigen took inspiration from these natural products to design and make synthetic zeolites – using her knowledge of chemistry, she modified the synthesis process to produce zeolites with different properties for different applications. Zeolite Y, for example, found widespread use in petroleum refinement.

In addition to over 100 patents, Flanigen has received many honors. To name just a few: In 1992, she became the first woman to receive the prestigious Perkin Metal; in 2004, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame; and in 2012 she received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. In 2014, an Edith Flanigen Award was instigated by Humboldt University of Berlin – this annual award is given to early-stage female scientists in Flanigen’s honor.

Photo credit: Lee Balgerman

Veronica Rodrigues


Veronica Rodrigues (1953-2010) was an influential neuroscientist who helped cultivate and gain recognition of a thriving biosciences community in India. Despite being remembered as one of India’s greatest modern scientists, Rodrigues was born and raised in Kenya, entering India later as an adult and falling in love with the country. Rodrigues’ education spanned multiple continents – she began college at Makerere University in Uganda, but political turmoil led her to transfer her studies to Trinity College Dublin. At Trinity, in addition to a degree in Microbiology, she got a source of motivation that would set the path of her future career, although not in the way she expected.

When she read the papers of the Indian scientists P. Vijay Sarathy and Obaid Siddiqi, it was their work on bacterial genetics that excited her and drove her to write and ask to do her PhD with them. When she arrived at Obaid’s lab at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), however, she found that Obaid had shifted his research focus to neurogenetics, especially the molecular makeup of olfaction (the sense of smell). Rodrigues took up the subject with passion, making so much progress that she was offered a position at TIFR while she was still a student.

She spent several years in Tubingen, Germany’s Max-Planck Institute, where she pioneered research into the now-thriving field of olfactory coding (how the brain interprets smells) before returning to TIFR, where she expanded her research into how the neurons coding this information develop. Because her work was at the leading edge, she often had to develop new experimental techniques, many of which are currently used in labs around the world. She would likely have appreciated this global reach of her work, as she placed a strong emphasis on science communication and was always eager to collaborate.

It is fitting that, as a researcher of development, Rodrigues herself was instrumental in the development of the scientific institutions she worked at and the scientists she mentored. She became leader of the TIFR’s Molecular Biology unit, expanding it so much that it led to the development of a separate prestigious research institution in Bangalore, the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), to which she would move towards the end of her much too short career. In addition to fostering the development of students in her own lab, she created and led a biennial neurobiology course at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, where she taught and mentored students from developing countries. Rodrigues died from breast cancer in 2010.

Photo credit: Apurva Sarin

Mathilde Krim


Last week, we were saddened to hear of the passing of biologist and HIV/AIDS crusader Mathilde Krim who, among other accomplishments, founded the nonprofit that became the Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). Krim was born in Italy in 1926 and raised in Switzerland, where she received degrees in genetics from the University of Geneva. She worked for a time at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel before moving to New York, where she took a position at Cornell University Medical School and, later, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

She was deeply involved in research on the use of the drug interferon to treat leukemia when a physician friend drew her attention to mysterious disease clusters we now know to be caused by HIV/AIDS. Showing her characteristic flexibility in techniques and pathways, but never morals, she switched her research focus to HIV. Quickly becoming deeply involved in the HIV/AIDS community, she was deeply troubled by the stigma surrounding the disease, stigma she began to work tirelessly to dispel, in part through helping explain the science behind it.  

Krim knew that she was in a unique position to address the AIDS crisis – she had a strong scientific background as well as connections to people in power (and sources of money) through her movie mogul husband, Arthur Krim. Utilizing these resources, she co-founded what would become Amfar in 1983. She served as amfAR’s chairman for over a decade, helping introduce legislation for increased research into AIDS as well as improved access to AIDS treatment. In addition to working through scientific and political channels, she recruited prominent celebrities to her cause – through fundraisers and events they raised millions of dollars while also helping with destigmatization.

Mathilde Krim has been described as a “scientist turned activist,” but these roles are not mutually exclusive – Krim was a scientist AND activist. After decades of research, she eventually left academia to focus on advocacy; but when she left the lab, she didn’t leave science, she merely contributed from new angles. Furthermore, Krim was an advocate all her life, active in numerous civil and human rights movements around the world. No, Krim was not a scientist TURNED activist, she was a scientist AND activist who was able to unite these two roles to great effect.

Photo credit: amfAR

Kono Yasui


Born in Kagawa Prefecture, Japan in 1880, Kono Yasui grew up in a society built around the ideal of women as wives and mothers, an ideal built into the educational system. Being a girl, Yasui attended girls-only schools where, instead of being taught science, math, and engineering like the boys were, she received training to become a “good wife and mother.” Higher education opportunities for women in Japan were extremely limited, especially at Japan’s elite Imperial Universities where women were barred until 1913.

In contrast with this gender imbalance in broader society, Yasui’s family tried to instill in her a sense of equality. Her parents encouraged her to pursue her passions, even if they conflicted with gender norms. She studied science and math at Tokyo Women’s Higher Normal School (TWHNS) where, before even graduating, she became the first woman to publish a scientific paper in a Japanese journal. She got a position teaching as an assistant professor at TWHNS, but the job lacked support for research, which was one of her main passions. Making the best of what she had available, she began research in plant cytology (the study of plant cells), painstakingly documenting the intricate anatomy of the floating aquatic fern Salvinia natans throughout its life cycle. She published her findings in a British botanical journal in 1911, making her the first Japanese woman to publish in a foreign journal.

Yasui wished to pursue further education but, despite her early accomplishments, she was still not allowed in Japan’s Imperial Universities because of her gender. Therefore, TWHNS petitioned Japan’s Ministry of Education to provide funding for Yasui to study abroad. The Ministry of Education denied the request until a prominent Japanese scientist, Kenjiro Fuji, advocated for her, and the Ministry offered a compromise: they would support Yasui’s overseas education, but only if she 1) added “home economics” to her area of study and 2) agreed never to marry. It is clear from these compromises the deep discomfort and fear the male-dominated society felt with this ambitious female scientist – they simultaneously aimed to neutralize her threat to the feminine ideal by masking her studies with more “acceptable” topics and neutralize her threat to male superiority by making it clear that Yasui was not a “proper” woman.

Despite the sexism, Yasui was able to make a successful career for herself; she studied at the University of Chicago and Radcliffe College, where she began researching coal, a research subject she took back to Japan, where she took back up teaching at TWHNS. Through careful analysis of coal samples, she discovered six ancient plant species and helped unravel the processes by which living plants are transformed into coal. After initially excluding Yasui years ago, Tokyo Imperial University saw their mistake and awarded her a PhD in 1927, even though she wasn’t officially a student. This made her the first Japanese woman to earn a PhD in science, and she helped make sure she would be joined by many others. Together with the second Japanese woman to earn a scientific doctorate, Chika Kuroda, she established the Yasui-Kuroda Scholarship to support women studying natural sciences. Additionally, she helped transform TWHNS into a renowned women’s research university (renamed Ochanomizu University), where she became a research Professor. She studied plant genetics and the effects of nuclear fallout on plants, publishing 99 papers before retiring in 1952.

Photo credit: Ochanomizu University

Michelle Dougherty


Michele Dougherty has never been to space in person, but as a Principal Investigator for the international Cassini spacecraft mission, she’s probably seen Saturn closer than anyone else has. Looking at Jupiter and Saturn through a homemade telescope as a child in South Africa, however, she had no idea she’d one day help lead missions to those far off specks of light. 

Dougherty was born in South Africa and received a PhD from the University of Natal, where she studied wave-particle interactions (expertise that later in her career would help her analyze magnetic fields and atmospheres in outer space). After a fellowship in applied mathematics in Germany, she moved to Imperial College London, where she has remained ever since, currently serving as Professor of Space Physics.

Her early work on space research involved modeling Jupiter’s magnetic fields for the Ulysses mission. Later, she became involved with the Cassini mission, in charge of its magnetometer (MAG) instrument, which she and her team used to collect magnetic field data from Saturn and its moons. In one of her career’s most exciting moments, she detected unusual data from around one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, and convinced the Cassini team to alter their planned orbit path so that she could investigate further. It took a lot of courage to stand up for herself, but it paid off. She was right; the anomalies in the data weren’t just “noise,” they were evidence of an atmosphere that could potentially support microbial life!

The Cassini mission ended last year, and Dougherty’s sights are once again set on Jupiter – with her “stellar” record leading Cassini’s MAG, she was chosen to lead the MAG of the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE) spacecraft, scheduled to go into orbit around Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede by 2033.

In addition to “PhD,” Dougherty can now add “CBE” to her name, as it was announced last week as part of the UK’s “2018 New Years Honours” that she has been chosen to receive the title of “Commander of the Order of the British Empire” for her “services to UK physical science research.”

Photo Credit: Royal Society

Carolyn Cohen


Last week we lost another great female scientist, structural biologist Carolyn Cohen, lovingly known by friends as “C2”. Cohen studied biology and physics at Bryn Mawr, but she felt she “found her calling” outside of the classroom, when, during a summer job working in the kitchens at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, MA she heard a lecture on protein structures by Dorothy Wrinch, and was struck by the beauty of Wrinch’s slides. She went on to earn a PhD in biophysics from MIT, where she gained the expertise needed to pursue her new professional mission to “see and know about” proteins.

She joined the Children’s Cancer Research Foundation (Jimmy Fund), where she worked closely with her friends and coworkers Don Caspar and Susan Lowey, before the three of them moved their group to Brandeis University, where they founded the Structural Biology group. Here, Cohen used structural, molecular, and biochemical methods to research the molecular motors that power our muscles. In addition to her work on specific proteins, she investigated the principles that govern the folding of all proteins, principles that can help scientists predict the 3-dimensional structures of proteins based on their underlying sequence alone. Cohen holds the record (39 years!) for longest funded research project under the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease (NIAMS).

Her scientific work earned her the title of Brandeis’ first female tenured biology professor, but colleagues remember Cohen for more than just her scientific accomplishments. In addition to her infectious passion for science, she had a great sense of humor and a love of literature, which she tried to pass on to colleagues and trainees. She is also remembered for her warmth of heart, evident in the personal touches she’d add to her professional interactions. She was motivated by curiosity and a desire to “do the right thing” rather than fame and awards (although she received quite a few, including election to the National Academy of Sciences). When she saw injustice, she spoke out, especially when it came to supporting fellow women in science; upset by the treatment and lack of recognition Rosalind Franklin had received for her work on solving the structure of DNA, Cohen held a lecture to honor Franklin’s life.  Cohen died on December 20, 2017 and is deeply missed.

Photo credit: Brandeis University

Catherine Dulac


Continuing our recognition of the importance of mentorship, this WiSE Wednesday we honor neuroscientist Catherine Dulac for both her “conventional” scientific successes and her dedication to supporting her colleagues and trainees. Dulac was born and raised in France. After receiving a PhD in developmental biology from the University of Paris, she accepted a postdoctoral position in Nobel laureate Richard Axel’s laboratory at Columbia University. Here, she discovered the first family of mammalian pheromone receptors, a revolutionary finding as the role of pheromones in mammals has been contentious. Following this exciting discovery, her career took off – she took a position at Harvard in 1996 and quickly climbed the ranks, gaining full professorship in 2001 and serving as chair of Harvard’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. Her lab she uses diverse techniques (e.g. molecular, genetic, electrophysiological) to investigate innate social behaviors in mice at multiple levels (molecular, cellular, and systems). One branch of her research expands upon her postdoctoral discovery to further investigate the roles of pheromones in mammalian brain development. Her second branch of research looks at genomic imprinting in the brain, an exciting emerging field. 

Last week, Dulac visited Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), where we were honored to host her for a fun, yet informative breakfast, in which she told us about her approach to mentoring, which emphasizes empowering lab members (e.g. letting leaving postdocs take their projects with them) and taking pride in their successes. Key her lab’s culture is openness – she encourages everyone to share their thoughts and ideas (even in disagreement), regardless of their seniority. After giving a labwide seminar on the "Neurobiology of Social Behavior Circuits", she met students and post-docs again in a less formal setting over lunch, where she shared advice on time management and making the transition to handling your own lab. It’s great to see accomplished scientists take the time to help teach the skills not taught in traditional curriculums.

Dulac is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS). You can learn more about her work here:

Photo credits: Harvard, Jue Xiang


Ruby Payne-Scott


It is ironic that Australia’s first female radio astronomer, a woman later held-up as a source of Australian pride, was forced out of her research position by a governmental ban on employing married women in permanent positions in public service. Payne-Scott was born in New South Wales in 1912 and studied multiple disciplines at the University of Sydney, receiving degrees in physics and education. She went to work for Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), where she discovered new types of solar radio bursts. During WWII she conducted top secret research into radar technology and aircraft detection.

Payne-Scott fell in love with fellow scientist William Hall, but a ban on married women holding permanent governmental jobs meant that getting married would put her career in jeopardy. They decided to marry secretly, and their plan worked for several years until the head of a stricter CSIRO administration found out, and her job status was reduced to “temporary” (with the reduction of benefits that entailed). She continued working in this position until, a few months before giving birth to her son, she resigned – no maternity was leave available – and adopted her husband’s last name.

Although she never returned to CSIRO, she did return to science after raising her son and daughter, teaching math and science at an all-girls school for over a decade. She died in 1981. Payne-Scott made significant contributions to radiophysics and radio astronomy before she was pushed out, but we can only imagine the missed opportunities caused by the ban, which wasn’t repealed until 1966. In 2008, CSIRO introduced a career-development award in her honor that provides funding for workers re-entering the workplace.

Photo Credit: Peter Hall

Sarah Diermeier-Herridge


This WiSE Wednesday we honor this year’s WiSE post-doc mentor awardee, molecular biologist Dr. Sarah Diermeier-Herridge. The WiSE Mentorship Awards were created to honor the men and women who are not only exceptional scientists, but also mentors to women at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. This year we presented our inaugural award in the post-doc or student category to Dr. Sarah Diermeier-Herridge.

Sarah received her PhD from the University of Regensburg in Molecular Biology and Genomics before joining the Spector Laboratory at Cold Spring Habor Laboratory as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow. By analyzing global gene expression data of mouse and human tumors she discovered 30 long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs) that could be involved in breast cancer. She validated these lncRNAs as novel biomarkers and therapeutic targets using antisense knockdown and genetic knockout (Cas9/CRISPR) assays. Sarah became an Adjunct Professor at Long Island University and taught courses such as ”Molecular & Cellular Biology of Cancer" and "Advanced Topics in Cancer Biology.”

Also, while at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Sarah became president of the Bioscience Enterprise Club (BEC) which focuses on enabling members to explore alternative science careers and develop entrepreneurial skills through interaction with peers and professionals representing industry, government and academic career paths. She hosted the Beyond the Bench Symposium 2017 with Keynote Speaker Dr. Jennifer Doudna and invited speakers from across the United States to discuss alternative careers to the academic path.

Many consider Sarah a mentor, especially, Tumi Tran, who nominated Sarah for her ability to provide guidance and confidence to her while co-organizing the Beyond the Bench Symposium 2017. While a mentor, Sarah is also a friend and role model, a true inspiration for women in science.

Congratulations are also in order since Sarah recently became a Professor at Otago University in New Zealand in the Department of Biochemistry and will be starting in the new year. Her lab is currently hiring so check out her webpage:

This WiSE Wednesday was brought to you by a guest author, WiSE VP Alexandra Ambrico. Thanks Alex!

Mary Claire-King


You probably know about the BRCA1 gene and its link to breast cancer thanks to Angelina Jolie, but do you know about the woman who discovered it, Mary-Claire King? King was born in 1946 in Evanston, Illinois. She began her secondary education with her eye (and mind) on a career in math; following a degree in mathematics from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, she began a PhD in statistics at the University of California, Berkeley. While there, she took a genetics class that so inspired her that she switched to Berkeley’s genetics program. She never gave up her love for math, however – instead she built an incredibly successful career upon applying mathematical modeling to biological questions.

In her PhD work, she compared the sequences of protein-coding genes for human and chimpanzee genes and found that the amino acid sequences of the proteins they produced were incredibly similar (99% identical). So why are humans and chimps so different? King proposed that evolution could be driven by changes in the expression of these genes through changes in regulatory DNA sequences, rather than changes in the coding sequences (later found to be true). She moved to Chile to teach after graduating in 1973, but a violent military coup led her to return to California, where she began a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer epidemiology and genetics at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and then started as an assistant professor at UC Berkeley (where she was explicitly told she was only hired because of affirmative action).

At the time, cancer research was mainly focused on cancer-causing viruses, but King knew that breast cancer ran in certain families and believed that there must be a genetic cause in these cases. In order to collect more data on breast cancer inheritance, she convinced the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to add questions about family history of cancer to a survey they were conducting. Using this data, she developed a mathematical model that accounted for hereditary cases of breast cancer, but the responsible gene(s) were still unknown. After 17 years of hard work, King was able to map the gene, BRCA1. Women with BRCA1 mutations can have a significantly increased risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer, and King has worked hard to develop tools to cheaply screen for such mutations.

In addition to applying her mathematical & biological skills to evolution and cancer genomics, King has tackled humanitarian issues – developing mitochondrial DNA sequencing technology to help reunite families torn apart by war and identify soldiers’ remains. She moved to the University of Washington in 1995, where she is a Professor of Genome Sciences and Medicine. She received a Lasker Award in 2014 and a National Medal of Science in 2016 that recognized both her scientific and humanitarian achievements.  

Linda Van-Aelst


This WiSE Wednesday we honor this year’s WiSE faculty mentor awardee, molecular biologist Dr. Linda Van Aelst. Scientists are often judged by their number of papers, citations, or scientific awards but many of our greatest minds have also served the field as influential mentors to junior colleagues. For women, obtaining a strong mentor is a crucial part of advancing their careers in a male-dominated field. To highlight the invaluable colleagues who support and inspire us, we created the WiSE Mentorship Awards to honor women and men who have served as personal or professional mentors to women here at CSHL, and we were thrilled to present the inaugural award in the faculty category to Dr. Van Aelst.

Van Aelst’s association with CSHL began in 1992 when, after receiving a PhD in molecular biology from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, she joined Michael Wigler’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow. She went on to earn her own lab here and was awarded full professorship in 2006. Her lab studies molecular signaling pathways and their roles in development and diseases including cancer and neurological disorders. She recently helped discover molecular forces that help direct new brain cells to their final location. Throughout her long tenure here, she has been a prominent member of the CSHL community, and has served as a stable source of guidance to colleagues at all levels.

Van Aelst received multiple nominations for the mentorship awards from her colleagues who cited her assistance with promotion and grant-writing. Fellow scientists describe her as “incredibly valuable” and “a wonderful colleague,” always willing to meet and provide advice. 

Life doesn’t begin and end in the lab, and neither does Van Aelst’s mentorship - in addition to helping with these technical aspects of academia, she has helped her colleagues through hard times in their personal lives. 

Her WiSE award joins a long list of honors including awards from the Neurofibromatosis Foundation and the Dana Foundation, and we anticipate many more are still to come. Thank you Dr. Van Aelst for helping make CSHL a great place for women to work!

Photo by Michael Englert/CSHL

Betty Harris


As we at WiSE experienced firsthand teaching neuroscience to Girl Scouts last summer, sharing the joys of science with children can be an immensely rewarding experience for the teachers and an exciting, even inspirational, experience for the participants. Thanks to this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Girl Scouts across the US are being introduced to chemistry at a young age and earning a merit badge in the process.

Betty Harris was born in 1940 in Louisiana. After earning an BS in chemistry from Southern University and MS in chemistry from Atlanta University, she taught chemistry and math for ten years before continuing her own graduate studies. She earned a PhD in chemistry from the University of New Mexico, then worked as a research chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. While there, she performed diverse hazardous material research, developing methods to de-contaminate hazardous waste sites, synthesize safer explosives, and detect trace amounts of explosives (she received a patent for a test used at crime scenes). Having spent time in academia and governmental research, she next set her sights on industry, becoming chief of chemical technology for Solar Turbine Incorporated (STI). At STI she managed research on a different type of investigation – the case of the corroding gas turbine engines – the culprits turned out to be sulfuric acid & soot). She then returned to government service, finishing her career with eleven years as a certified document review at the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Classification, where she helped determine what DOE information should be classified and what could be released.

Harris has been a strong advocate for comprehensive STEM education, and thanks to her work with the Girl Scouts, girls are learning first-hand that chemistry is fun and exciting, not boring or scary!

Photo credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

Isabella Karle


Isabella Karle (1921-2017). Last month we lost another great woman in science, crystallographer Isabella L. Karle, who helped develop methods to determine the structure of biological molecules. Isabella was born in Detroit in 1921 and received a PhD in chemistry from the University of Michigan, where forced alphabetical seating in a class led her to meet her future husband, Jerome. During WWII Karle worked on the Manhattan Project before joining Jerome at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Southwest Washington in 1946.

At the NRL’s Laboratory for the Structure of Matter, the Karles performed revolutionary work. Jerome and mathematician Herbert Hauptman formulated a theoretical technique, “direct methods,” that would dramatically reduce the amount of time required to determine the structure of molecules. While Jerome and Herbert did most of the theoretical work, Isabella made the theoretical possible, teaching herself crystallography and devising ways (including her influential “Symbolic Addition Procedure”) to apply “direct methods” to actually solve structures. Without Isabella, “direct methods” were purely theoretical and therefore met with skepticism; her success in translating the complex mathematics into atomic-resolution structures allowed the technique to gain widespread recognition. It has since been used to help solve tens of thousands of structures, aiding in drug development as well as basic research.

Jerome and Hauptman were awarded the 1985 Nobel Prize in chemistry – an award we might add that can be shared three-way… (Jerome himself was devastated that Isabella was looked over). Nevertheless, Isabella did receive other honors, including the National Medal of Science bestowed upon her by Bill Clinton in 1995. Karle and her husband retired in 2009, after a combined 127 years of service.

Throughout her life, Karle faced gender discrimination. In high school, a female chemistry teacher helped fuel her scientific ambitions, allowing her to push aside criticism from other teachers including one who told her that chemistry was not an appropriate subject for women. Karle sure proved that teacher wrong, going on to have a long, incredibly successful career in science and serving as an inspiration for women around the world as well as within her own household (her three daughters are all scientists). Karle died of brain cancer October 3, and her death has been deeply felt.

Photo Credit: Naval Research Laboratory

Jane Richardson


This special WiSE Wednesday, we revisit one of our past honorees as she visits us! Jane Richardson is a true “Renaissance Woman;” born in New Jersey in 1941, her highly productive career has included work in the areas of astronomy, philosophy, biophysics, art, and computational biology (just to name a few). As a biophysicist and structural biologist, she worked with her husband, David Richardson, to solve some of the first protein structures. Jane knew that these structures held key information about how the proteins worked, but the high concentration of atoms in the models made them hard for a specialist, let alone an outsider, to interpret. Therefore, she began drawing representations of these structures that highlighted just the major structural features. These so-called ribbon diagrams not only enabled those outside of the biophysical field to appreciate structural biology, but also allowed researchers to identify structures that were conserved between different proteins. This had major implications for understanding the function and evolution of these molecules.


She made her original diagrams by hand - it was fascinating to hear her discuss the care she took to get the details right, including wrapping mailing tubes in tape to see what helixes look like from different angles. This painstaking work has given her an unbeatable talent for moving seamlessly between 2D and 3D computer graphical representations, a talent she has graciously shared freely with the public (she uploads her work, open license, to WikiMedia Commons and she is proud to have convinced the RCSB PDB to make their “Molecule of the Month” graphics similarly accessible).

Jane is still an active scientist today in her lab at Duke University, where her many projects include developing software to aid in the solving of molecular structures. One such piece of software, MolProbity, uses knowledge of the biophysical properties of molecules to allow structural biologists to locate and fix problems in their models. While some may debate over the benefits of science versus the humanities, Jane Richardson shows that the two are not mutually exclusive – in fact, they can be quite complementary. This was reflected in a great piece of inspiration she left us with: "There's no such thing as photorealism for macromolecules - so we're free to seek the best alternative representations."

In a room dominated by men, Jane could sure hold her own, answering questions and offering insights with a brightness of mind and wit. It was a great honor to meet her.

Joan Steitz


There are some scientists who can capture an entire room; one such person is this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Dr. Joan Steitz, whose enthusiasm for science I had the honor of witnessing this past weekend. As one of the key figures in research of mRNA splicing, she visited Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as co-organizer of a special meeting: 40 years of mRNA splicing: from discovery to therapeutics. 

40 years ago, it was discovered that, unlike bacterial proteins, which are coded for by uninterrupted DNA sequences, eukaryotic proteins have more complicated instructions, containing regulatory regions called introns that have to be removed to produce the final messenger RNA (mRNA) that gets translated into protein. Steitz discovered complexes of protein and RNA called small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs) that carry out this process (termed splicing). Furthermore, she found that the RNA in these snRNPs bound to complementary sequences at splice-site junctions, providing an explanation for splicing specificity. These are just a couple of her many landmark discoveries, but she never expected to become the “science superstar” she is.

Steitz was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After receiving an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, she planned to enter medical school. Wanting to pursue her love of science, she saw medical school as an “available” option for a woman, whereas, not seeing any female scientific professors, she saw academia as a men’s domain. However, after a research experience the summer before she was due to start at Harvard Medical School, she determined that the lack of women in science shouldn’t keep her from seeking a research career. She transferred her acceptance from Harvard Med to Harvard’s biochemistry graduate program, where she was the only woman in the class and faced gender discrimination (one professor refused to take her on in his lab reasoning that it would be a waste of his time to train a woman who’d just leave and start a family). After a postdoc at the University of Cambridge in England, Joan and her husband (and fellow biochemist) Thomas took positions at Yale, where they remain to this day, and Joan continues to research the many roles RNA plays in cells. Joan has received many honors including a National Medal of Science and is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator.

Hearing Steitz talk, you would never imagine that, as a college student, she doubted she had the enthusiasm for research required for the demands of life as a scientist. And, knowing about her decades of success at Yale, it’s heartening as an insecure grad student to learn that she had trouble picturing herself as a professor (let alone one whom starstruck grad students would be asking to take a picture with). In addition to being an amazing scientist, Steitz is a strong champion for women in science, advocating for resources including flexible childcare options. It was an honor to meet her.

Emīlija Gudriniece


Organic chemist Emīlija Gudriniece (1920-2004) was one of the first scientists to recognize the potential to produce fuel from vegetable oils.

Gudriniece was born and raised in Latvia, where she studied chemistry at the University of Latvia. After becoming a professor at Riga Polytechnic, she founded a Department of Organic Synthesis and Biotechnology there and served as department head for 27 years. A prolific scientist with broad interests, she synthesized useful compounds including the antibiotic furanicide and antioxidants for makeup. While much of her work benefitted the cosmetics industry, she was by no means a “girly girl” and her refusal to be confined by gender stereotypes likely helped inspire her work on biofuel; an avid motorcyclist, she won the Latvian Women’s Motorcycling Championship two times. 

Gudriniece felt close ties to her homeland and, where she saw gaps in Latvia’s opportunities for scientists, she worked to fill them; she organized numerous scientific meetings and conferences in Latvia, revived the Latvian Chemical Society, and organized national and international scientific congresses of Latvian scientists. Known and admired for her enthusiasm and energy, Gudriniece loved working with students and guided over two dozen to successful completion of a degree. She died in 2004 in Latvia, the country she loved, a country whose scientific community and resources she worked tirelessly to strengthen.