Sylvy Kornberg

photo credit: University of Rochester

Biochemist Sylvy Kornberg performed important research in the quest to understand how DNA gets copied (a process that’s required before each cell splitting so that each cell gets a complete genetic instruction manual). She’s often mentioned in passing as a mother and wife (mother to Nobel laureate Roger Kornberg and wife of Nobel laureate Arthur Kornberg) – but there was so much more to this amazing woman’s life – including discovering and characterizing a protein that was inhibiting the replication of DNA they were trying to study and one that was making long chains of phosphate (polyphosphate, or PolyP).

Until a few weeks ago, however, Sylvy Kornberg didn’t have her own Wikipedia article (and if you Google her name, Arthur’s Wikipedia page still turns up instead of hers) – and there are other countless under-appreciated scientists around the world throughout history who, although “in the background” and/or overshadowed, are no less vital to the generation and sharing of scientific knowledge. So, in addition to honoring Sylvy and her research, this #WiSEWednesday, I want to reflect more generally on how science is told and remembered – and how you can help keep stories from being forgotten (ANYONE can create/edit/expand Wikipedia articles).

One of the first things you’ll find when trying to find out more information about someone related to famous people is that it’s hard to find information about this “less famous” family member because people just want to tell you about the more famous relatives. Don’t get me wrong – Roger Kornberg, with his work on RNA polymerase & transcription and Arthur Kornberg, with his work on DNA polymerase and replication (work to which he credits Sylvy with helping him greatly on) have contributed greatly to biochemistry and deserve recognition –  but so does Sylvy and it wasn’t until reading about Arthur that I even learned he had a biochemist wife whom he worked with – I sadly had never heard of the name “Sylvy Kornberg” – if I heard “Kornberg” I might ask “Arthur or Roger?” but not “Arthur or Roger or Sylvy?”

And it turns out I was far from alone. In 2017, the magazine “The Scientist” was trying to ID an “unidentified woman” in a picture with another scientist that appeared in an article about cancer research (she was actually described in the caption as a “pharmacy technician”), so they put out a call for help through social media – and got a response from another of Sylvy’s sons, Kenneth (who bucked the family trend and became an architect – but one who designs lab spaces…) saying that it was his mom. The Scientist wrote a follow-up article about Sylvy (http://bit.ly/2M9GU9B) but she still didn’t have a Wikipedia page, so I decided to change that. Here’s a brief snippet of what you’ll find there about her life (and I encourage you to check out the full Wikipedia page for more – and go ahead and contribute while you’re there!).

Sylvy was born Sylvia Ruth Levy in Rochester, New York in 1917, the eldest of 3 children. Her parents were Jewish refugees from Latvia and Belarus who worked in factories their whole lives and didn’t have the opportunity to pursue a secondary education. Sylvy did have an opportunity, and she took it, enrolling at the University of Rochester where, ironically, she listed “chemistry and general science” as her least favorite subjects. She’d quickly change her tune, falling in love with biochemistry to the point where she was one of the few female students to commute to the mens’ college to take advanced biology and chemistry courses. She went on to earn a master’s degree in biochemistry (also from the University of Rochester).

During this time, she met her future husband, Arthur Kornberg (he was a medical student there), but they didn’t really get to know each other until they met again in Bethesda, Maryland where Sylvy had taken a research position at the National Cancer Institutes and Arthur the National Institutes of Health. They got married in 1943 and between 1947 & 1950, they had 3 sons: Roger, Thomas, and Kenneth. Sylvy took time off from the lab during this time, but she continued to edit science books from home. She then returned to the lab when Kenneth was 3.

When they moved to St. Louis, Missouri so that Arthur could take a position as chair of the microbiology department, Sylvy was right there with him in the lab. And she was there too when they relocated to Stanford University in 1959. After a couple years at Stanford, she retired – but continued to review and edit manuscripts from home – and then went back for a couple years to study the anti-cancer drug bleomycin’s effects on DNA replication. But her work and life were soon and tragically taken over by a rare neurodegenerative disease related to ALS, and she died in 1986, at the age of 69.

Much of Sylvy’s most significant work was carried out during their time at Washington University. They were trying to find out what enzymes (biological reaction speeder-uppers) were responsible for copying DNA (DNA replication), but they were at having some difficulties – Sylvy found an enzyme was degrading one of the DNA letters, so she isolated and characterized it. By figuring out what was going on that was keeping the copying reaction from going on, she helped the team get over a roadblock on the path to replication results. As Robert Lehman, who was a postdoc in the lab at the time and is now a professor emeritus at Stanford, puts it “We were having a major problem with inhibitors of the replication reaction, and she solved the problem.” And, In For the Love of Enzymes, which Arthur dedicated, “in memory of Sylvy, my great discovery,” Arthur writes that Sylvy “contributed significantly to the science surrounding the discovery of DNA polymerase.”

Sylvy also worked on an enzyme, polyphosphate kinase, that makes long chains of phosphates called polyphosphate, or “PolyP” which have functions including energy storage. This discovery was only the second type of enzymatic polymerization (molecule-link-upping) ever discovered. And I’m so glad I “discovered” her story – and I really want more people to be able to discover and share such stories of overshadowed scientists – so I encourage you to get involved with Wikipedia editing. ANYONE can edit Wikipedia. I got inspired by Dr.Jess Wade, who published almost 300 articles on female scientists in a year! 👉 https://bit.ly/2Lh8X8B

I saw her work on Twitter & got inspired so, last March, I started creating, expanding, & improving Wikipedia articles on #womeninscience and other things. And you, yes YOU can help! You don’t have to create whole new articles (though you certainly can!). Many deserving scientists have articles that are just “stubs” (few sentences) or way too short for what they deserve. Others have articles that are OK, but need copy editing. Every bit helps!

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