Louise Slaughter

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If you heard about last month’s death of Louise Slaughter, it was probably in relation to her position as a member of the United States House of Representatives (representing New York). But did you know that Slaughter was also a microbiologist? This biology background was reflected in her advocacy for government funding of health research, with particular emphases on ensuring the rights and inclusion of women and minorities, as well as the prevention of genetic discrimination.

Slaughter (née McIntosh) was born in Lynch, Kentucky in 1928. The childhood death of one of her sisters from pneumonia inspired her to study biology, earning a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and a master’s degree in public health, both from the University of Kentucky.

After graduating, she took a market research position at Procter & Gamble and became increasingly involved in community organizing for causes including women’s rights and environmental protection. Seeking to have a stronger voice, she decided to enter the political arena. She started as a member of the Monroe County Legislature, then worked her way up to federal Congress. She was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1982 and to Congress in 1986. She was an important member of the House Rules Committee, serving a term as Chairwoman (the first woman to serve this role) and multiple terms as ranking minority member.

While in Congress, she used her strong scientific background to advocate for federal support of responsible and inclusive science. She helped secure funding for breast cancer research, ensure that women and minorities were included in clinical trials, instigate Title IX compliance reviews of federal scientific agencies, and establish an Office of Research on Women’s Health (ORWH) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 2000, its ten-year anniversary, the ORWH awarded Slaughter a “Visionary for Women’s Health Research” award.

Slaughter also fought persistently for over a decade for passage of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), finally passed in 2008, to prevent health insurers and employers from using a person’s genetic information. Her master’s thesis research on antibacterial drug resistance gave her a strong foundation to advance legislation preventing the overuse of antibiotics.

Slaughter never retired - she passed away March 16, 2018 after suffering a fall and concussion. She was 88 at the time of her death – the oldest sitting member of Congress.

Katharine Burr Blodgett

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Katharine Burr Blodgett (1898-1979) invented “invisible” glass, which GE loved to tout, but they didn’t bother to include her in their 1953 Science article celebrating “75 years of research at GE laboratories.” So let’s give her some of the celebrating she deserves.

Blodgett was born in Schenectady, New York. She never got to meet her father, who was murdered by a burglar shortly before she was born. She spent much of her childhood living in France with her mother and brother, returning to New York in 1912. After obtaining a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, she went to work as a research scientist at General Electric (GE) (the first woman to hold this position at GE’s Schenectady location). She would remain at GE for a long, successful career that included obtaining 8 patents, only leaving from 1924-1926 to study at Cambridge University, where she became the first woman to which they awarded a PhD in Physics.

Blodgett performed extensive work on surface films, much of with Irving Langmuir, who had served as a mentor since the two met when Blodgett toured GE while still an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr. Langmuir had developed a way to create soapy films that were only a single molecule thick (monomolecular) on a water surface and Blodgett figured out how to transfer these films from water onto solid surfaces. Blodgett continued working on these “Langmuir-Blodgett films,” inventing a technique that allowed her to deposit these layers on top of one another to build films of precise (and very thin) height. Why was this important? It allowed her to create films for glass with a thickness of ¼ of the wavelength of light, so that light that hit the glass and light that reflected back from it would cancel each other out – no glare! This reflection-cancelling glass (improved upon by later researchers to make more durable) has since been used in items such as camera lenses, eyeglasses, computer screens.

Blodgett’s numerous other inventions included a “color gauge” to measure the thickness of films and more effective gas masks (credited with saving many lives in World War II). Blodgett had a rich personal life including acting, gardening, writing poetry, and supporting other professional women. She retired from GE in 1963 after close to half a decade of innovation, and died in 1979.

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

Ruth Sager

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Ruth Sager (1918-1997) pioneered the now-thriving field of “cytoplasmic genetics” but it took decades before her theories were accepted. Sager was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1918. She received a degree in mammalian physiology from the University of Chicago in 1938, followed by a master’s degree in plant physiology from Rutger’s University in 1944 and a PhD in maize genetics from Columbia University in 1948. While at Columbia, she worked with another amazing female scientist, Barbara McClintock.

After graduating, she transitioned to the Rockefeller Institute, where she worked her way up from postdoctoral fellow to staff member. It was here that she made her first major discovery. At the time, it was widely believed that all genetic information in eukaryotes was stored and transferred via the nucleus. However, while performing research using an alga called Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, she found that genes were also being passed on in other “packaging” – chloroplasts.

Better known for their photosynthetic functions (they turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into sugar), chloroplasts also contain their own (though small) set of genes. This can be explained by Lynn Margulis’ endosymbiotic theory – that chloroplasts and other membrane-bound “organelles” called mitochondria evolved from an ancient cell engulfing a simpler cell. The engulfed cell had its own genome that, over time, got whittled down as it was repurposed for energy production.

By performing classical breeding experiments in the algae, Sager discovered that some genes were being passed on through these genomes. Animals don’t have chloroplasts, but we do have mitochondria, with their own small genomes. And, as Sager theorized, mutations in these organelles are responsible for a number of diseases.

“Cytoplasmic genetics” is now a thriving and well-accepted field, but when Sager initially proposed this nonchromosomal inheritance strategy, she was met with strong skepticism. This, combined with her gender, made it difficult for her to find faculty research positions, but  

she later held positions as research scientist (Columbia), professor of biology (Hunter College), and professor of cellular genetics (Harvard Medical School). At Harvard, she served as chief of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Genetics where her research focused on the functions (and dysfunctions) of tumor suppressor genes.

Sager was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1977 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1979. She died from bladder cancer in 1997.

Photo credit: National Academy of Sciences

Virginia Minnich

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Virginia Minnich (1910-1996) suffered severe, disfiguring burns as a young child but she refused to hide. Instead, she went on to become a noted hematology researcher and the first person without a PhD or MD appointed Professor of Medicine at Washington University at St. Louis (WUSTL).

Virginia Minnich was born on January 24, 1910 in Zanesville, Ohio and raised on her family's farm along with five siblings. When she was four years old, her dress caught fire on a stove, causing severe burns that, despite dozens of corrective surgeries, left considerable scarring to her face, neck, and upper body. Throughout her life, the scarring led many colleagues to discourage her from jobs requiring much human interaction and give her unsolicited advice on accentuating her “more attractive” features.

She had wanted to become a nurse, but was discouraged from this career path, so she decided to study to become a dietician, receiving a Bachelor of Science in Home Economics from Ohio State University in 1937 and a master's degree in Nutrition from Iowa State College in 1938. She decided that being a nutritionist wasn’t the right career for her after all so, after graduating, she wrote to hematologist Carl Moore, whose lab she had briefly worked in at Ohio State University, asking for a job (assertiveness for the win!).

Moore was in the process of establishing a Hematology department at WUSTL and offered Minnich a technician position. Minnich accepted and helped build the department that would be her home for the remainder of her career (except during her international travels). Minnich quickly established a reputation as an exceptional morphologist, able to extract detailed information and draw conclusions from smears of blood and bone marrow under a microscope. When staining methods or blood tests were sub-par, she would develop her own. She attributes much of her early training to the female chief technician when she arrived at WUSTL, Olga Bierbaum, with whom she became close friends.

Minnich's research encompassed a variety of hematology and nutrition topics. A few highlights:

From 1949 to 1951 she worked with William Harrington in a landmark study involving self-experimentation – starting with Harrington, the team (including Minnich) injected themselves with blood from patients with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, leading their own platelet counts to drop and showing that an immune response was leading to platelet destruction.

In Thailand in 1951, Minnich found an unusually high rate of thalassemias, blood disorders characterized by decreased levels of the oxygen-carrying molecule hemoglobin. Upon further examination, she discovered that this was an undescribed form of thalassemia involving a novel abnormal hemoglobin molecule, hemoglobin E (HbE) (you can learn more about HbE in this companion piece. Her work led to further research into this disease, which is estimated to affect a million people worldwide. HbE is considered to be one of the most common genetic mutations and testing for HbE is now part of routine neonatal screening and genetic counseling.

In 1965, while in Turkey setting up a hematology laboratory at the University of Ankara, Minnich noticed a form of pica involving clay eating. When she followed up this research upon her return to Washington University, she found a similar clay eating practice in parts of the United States. Pica had been known to be associated with iron deficiency but the cause/effect relationship was unclear; Minnich found that that clay actually made iron deficiency worse by acting as a chelating agent, binding iron in the bloodstream and removing it from the body.

In 1970, a former colleague, Dan Mohler, referred her to a family with a glutathione synthetase deficiency, leading her to develop and perform biochemical assays to elucidate the glutathione synthesis pathway.

Minnich didn’t keep her talent to herself: she was regarded as an excellent teacher and, in addition to her official teaching responsibilities, she gave informal "night courses" to pathologists, lab technicians, and others. She created a series of audiovisual teaching materials describing the morphology of blood and bone marrow that were published by the American Society of Clinical Pathologists in the early 1980s as a 10-part course in morphologic hematology.

Despite her accomplishments, Minnich, like many female scientists, faced gender discrimination, in particular with regards to her salary. She was interested in going to medical school, but Moore dissuaded her from seeking further education and, consequently, her salary and career advancement were held back compared to men doing similar work. At one point, fed up after a male colleague received a tenure-track position over her, she wrote to the Rockefeller Institute asking for a job, and took the letter to WUSTL leadership as a negotiating chip: acknowledging Minnich’s value, WUSTL offered her a position as research associate professor. She would later (1974) become a full professor of Medicine in 1974 (the first person without a doctorate degree to reach this rank at Washington University). She became professor emeritus in 1978 and retired in 1984. She also worked at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis from 1975 to the mid-1980s as assistant and then associate director of Hematology.

Minnich retired from Washington University in 1984. She died of ovarian and colon cancer April 26, 1996 in Pensacola, Florida. She willed her estate to the Washington University School of Medicine to be used for student scholarships, and Washington University established a visiting professorship in clinical hematology in her name.

This article may look a lot like Minnich’s Wikipedia page – but, don’t worry, I didn’t plagiarize someone’s work – I created Minnich’s article because, despite her amazing life story and accomplishments, she, like countless scores of women in science didn’t have one. Whether it’s creating articles from scratch or expanding and improving existing articles – even simply adding references when you have a few minutes here or there – editing the Wikipedia pages of female scientists is a great way that you, yes YOU, can help increase recognition of the accomplishments of women in STEM and make sure that stories like Minnich’s don’t get forgotten!

Photo Credit: Bernard Becker Medical Library

Louise Chow

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You might have heard about the molecular imaging technique cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) because of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. This WiSE Wednesday we’d like to tell you another story involving a Nobel Prize and electron microscopy (though not the cryo kind). In many ways, this story has striking resemblance to a more well-known story of a woman being denied a share of a Nobel Prize for her work. You might know the story of how Rosalind Franklin got the “pictures” of DNA used to solve its structure that earned James Watson and Francis Crick the Nobel Prize. But did you know that Louise Chow took the images that led to her collaborator, Richard Roberts winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine in 1993 for the discovery of RNA splicing?  

Louise Chow was born in Hunan Province, China and got an undergraduate degree in Agricultural Chemistry from National Taiwan University before moving to the United States to pursue a graduate degree in Chemistry from the California Institute of Technology. Her thesis work involved developing techniques to use electron microscopy to visualize gene organization in bacteria and bacteriophages (you might remember “phages” from last week’s profile of Martha Chase).

After graduating, she took a post-doctoral position at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and then joined Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in 1975 with her husband and fellow scientist Thomas Broker. It was here at CSHL that she performed the groundbreaking work that undoubtedly was crucial to “Robert’s” discovery of splicing, and for which many people believe she deserved a share of the Nobel Prize.

In order to make a protein, the DNA in genes is first copied into an RNA intermediary called messenger RNA (mRNA). Initially, this RNA contains “extra segments” called introns between the “exons” that actually code for the protein. RNA splicing is the process by which the introns are removed to make mature mRNA that can be translated into functional protein. Chow and Roberts working at CSHL and Phillip Sharp and his team working at MIT independently discovered this process in 1977. Using electron microscopy methods she’d been perfecting for years, Chow set up the experiments and took images that directly showed splicing taking place.

The finding was revolutionary and an eventual Nobel Prize was almost a given. But whom to award it to? It was agreed that Roberts & Sharp would share pieces, and many people felt that Chow also deserved a share. But, the argument went, if they gave Chow a piece, wouldn’t they have to give Susan Berget, the electron microscopist working with Sharp, a share? And you can’t split a Nobel 4-way, so the men deciding whom to nominate decided to exclude Chow rather than incite controversy over why they chose to award one woman but not the other (1).

Chow and her husband (and vocal advocate) Thomas Broker left CSHL in 1984, continuing their collaborative work on human papillomaviruses (HPV) at the University of Rochester School of Medicine in 1984 and later (1993) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). One of Chow’s major breakthroughs in this HPV research was developing a way to produce large amounts of the virus in the lab and study its replication process in tissue cultures. In addition to her work in the lab, she is an Associate Editor of Virology and a member of an NIH advisory committee that reviews gene therapy protocols. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2012.

I had the great privilege of hearing Chow talk when she came to CSHL for a meeting honoring the 40th anniversary of the splicing discovery. I can’t give her the Nobel Prize she deserves, but I award her this WiSE Wednesday profile.  

[1] Anthony Flint (5 November 1993) "Behind Nobel, A Struggle for Recognition Some Scientists Say Colleague of Beverly Researcher Deserved A Share of Medical Prize". Archived from the original on June 6, 2004. Retrieved 2018-03-18. , Boston Globe.

photo: the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB)

Martha Chase

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If you hear “Hershey” and think “Chase,” not “chocolate,” you might be a scientist. My hope is that, after reading this article, you hear “Hershey” and think “Martha Chase!” You might have learned about the “Hershey-Chase experiment” in a biology class (the elegant experiment that showed that genetic information is stored in nucleic acids (DNA and RNA), not protein), but did you know that Chase was a woman? That she performed this revolutionary experiment while “just” a research assistant? That Hershey received the Nobel Prize for the work and didn’t even mention her in his acceptance speech?

Martha Cowles Chase was born on November 30, 1927 in Cleveland, Ohio. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from the College of Wooster in 1950, she went to work as a research assistant for Alfred Hershey at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL). It was here, in 1952, that Chase and Hershey performed their groundbreaking “blender experiment.” Briefly, they labeled DNA and protein and saw that DNA, not protein, was transmitted from a bacteria-infecting virus (phage) into bacteria during infection. This showed that the DNA was the source of the genetic instructions for making more virus particles. You can learn more about the experiment in this companion piece from The Bumbling Biochemist.

Martha resigned from CSHL in 1953 and went to work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Rochester, returning every summer in the 1950’s for CSHL’s famous “Phage Group” meetings. After almost a decade working as a research assistant, she decided to return to school. She moved to California and begin doctoral studies in microbiology at the University of Southern California, receiving a PhD in 1964. A series of setbacks ended her scientific career, and she moved back to Ohio after graduating to live with family. The last decades of her life were marred by a form of dementia affecting her short-term memory. She died of pneumonia in 2003.

The Hershey-Chase experiment won Hershey the Nobel Prize in 1969 (he shared it with Salvador Luria and Max Delbrück "for their discoveries concerning the replication mechanism and the genetic structure of viruses." Martha Chase was not included, and Hershey didn’t even acknowledge her contributions in his acceptance speech. Maybe if Chase had gotten more credit during her lifetime, we would have more information preserved about her. As it stands, it is incredibly difficult to find information about her. Encyclopedia Britannica doesn't even have an article about her. If you search for her it takes you to her being referenced on Hershey’s page.  

There is little surviving information about the level of “intellectual contribution” Chase played in the experiment, but, given that she was listed as a co-author on the results paper (which was not common practice for research assistants unless they contribute substantially), she is believed to have played a key role throughout the experiment’s design, execution, and interpretation. Some denigrate research assistants and technicians as merely “sets of hands,” but these workers aren’t just manual labor, they are scientists, and when they make significant contributions, they deserve credit. So, this WiSE Wednesday, we want to not only honor Martha Chase, but also all the other underappreciated research assistants and technicians who help make science possible! Thank you for your work!

Mildred Cohn

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Mildred Cohn (1913-2009) developed methods to track the movement of atoms within cells and was the first female president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). I was thrilled when I learned that the professor whose lab I’m in, Dr. Leemor Joshua Tor, was awarded the ASBMB's 2018 Mildred Cohn Award in Biological Chemistry. I didn’t know much about the award’s namesake, so I decided to do some research on Mildred Cohn and I found an incredibly inspirational chemist whose story of overcoming gender and religious discrimination I’d like to share with you this WiSE Wednesday.

Cohn was born in New York in 1913. The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants at a time rife with anti-Semitism, she faced discrimination from a young age. A precocious child, she graduated early from high school, then completed a chemistry degree from Hunter College. She was interested in pursuing higher education, but a professor tried to dissuade her (chemistry was not an “appropriate” career for a woman). “Propriety” be damned, she continued her scientific journey undaunted, receiving a master’s degree from Columbia University. She wanted to immediately continue on to a PhD, but she couldn’t receive a teaching assistantship because the available positions were in an all-male college. Without a funded position, she had to seek out other opportunities, so she joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the precursor to NASA), saving her earnings before returning to Columbia several years later to finally get a PhD in physical chemistry.

A small number of elements (including carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur) serve as basic building blocks for almost all of life’s molecules. Their atoms can be connected and rearranged in various ways to carry out the functions necessary for life (providing structural support, storing information, transferring energy, etc.). These elements have therefore long been subject to intense research but, due to technical limitations, for most of history all that was known about them was from research conducted in test tubes. Cohn wanted to know how these molecules acted inside of living organisms, so she developed techniques to track the movement of atoms inside of cells, helping scientists understand fundamental biochemical processes. This was no easy feat – she even had to learn glass blowing in order to make custom glassware for her experiments – but she had never been one to back down from a challenge. These early experiments, as well as her later research, helped pave the way for medical imaging technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that allow doctors to see inside the body and diagnose problems.

Despite her scientific accomplishments, it took 20 years after earning her PhD before Cohn was granted associate professorship upon joining the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine (the difficulty women face in obtaining tenure-track positions is not a recent phenomenon). She became a full professor the following year (1961) and in 1964 she became the first female career investigator for the American Heart Association. This honor was followed by numerous other firsts including first woman to serve on The Journal of Biological Chemistry’s editorial board and the first female president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB).

There is so much to admire about this trailblazing woman – from her innovative science to her deliberate choice to wear a pastel dress to stand out in a picture with a group of men wearing dark suits to her celebrating her 90th birthday by hang gliding. I wish I could have met her but, sadly, she passed away in 2009. The Mildred Cohn Award in Biological Chemistry was created in her honor in 2013 and is awarded yearly by the ASBMB to biological chemists using innovative physical approaches to answer life’s questions.

Photo credit: the Institute/Douglas A. Lockard

Caroline Dean

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Cellular and developmental biologist Caroline Dean studies the genetic and epigenetic mechanisms by which external temperature regulates the timing of plant reproduction, a topic that’s increasingly relevant as global climate change affects crop production. Her work has led to important insights into chromatin regulation and evolutionary adaptation in a variety of species. This special WiSE Wednesday, we look back at her last week’s visit as our second McClintock lecturer of 2018.

Dr. Dean was born and raised in the UK, where she received biology degrees from the University of York. After graduating, she spent some time in industry, working on genetic engineering at a biotech company in California before returning to academia (and the UK) and taking a position at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, where she is currently a Professor and Project Leader. She has received numerous honors including election to national academies in the UK, US, and Germany. Last year, she was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. 

It was not only her scientific contributions that led us to choose Dr. Dean as a McClintock lecturer, however. Through the McClintock lecture series, we highlight prominent women scientists who have performed pioneering research AND advocated for women in science, and Dean definitely fit the bill! Dr. Dean has been a great advocate for the advancement of women in science, with a strong history of providing inspiration and career guidance to girls and young women.  For this work, she received the FEBS|EMBO Women in Science Award in 2014 and was recently named a 2018 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science laureate.

It was rather fitting that a scientist working on epigenetics in plants gave a speech in a series created in honor of Barbara McClintock, who discovered “jumping genes” in corn. In fact, the two had actually met each other – Dean told a story of how, during one of her talks, McClintock moved her chair closer and closer to the podium until she was practically sitting next to Dean. 

While at CSHL, Dean met and dined with WiSE members and gave a great labwide seminar on "Epigenetic switching and antisense transcription." So, what advice did Dean have to give to us? When it comes to stepping outside of your comfort zone, trying an experiment that’s never been done before, “Be brave” and “Just go for it.” This advice certainly worked for her! She told a story of how Mark Ptashne was skeptical about her data (and the whole premise of epigenetics in general) – undaunted, Dean performed an experiment that would solidify her theory and presented her conclusive results later that same year at a meeting Ptashne attended.

It was a great honor to host Dame Dean and we hope her words and story can help motivate you as you forge your own unique paths!

Margaret Oakley Dayhoff

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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: https://www.dulaclab.com

Photo credits: Harvard, Jue Xiang

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Ruby Payne-Scott

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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