GEL lab Blog (1)

Reflections from a female genetics PhD student 100 years after Rosalind Franklin’s birth by Chloe Austerberry, GEL lab PhD student

Last year, as I was embarking on my PhD, a friend lent me her dog-eared copy of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Gene: An Intimate History”. Diverted from my work, I inhaled Mukherjee’s book, gripped by his page-turning account of the history of genetics, the fierce competition in the scientific community and Rosalind Franklin, a researcher at the centre of it all.

In my own work, I set out to understand the contribution of genes and the environment to individual differences in cognition and educational outcomes. In particular, I’ve been trying to figure out how children’s genes might influence the environments that are shaping their cognitive development. As a student researching the interplay between genes and the environment in relation to achievement, it’s perhaps unsurprising that I would be intrigued by Franklin’s story — a talented female scientist placed in an environment deeply unfavourable to her.

Returning to my PhD research, I began working on the Early Growth and Development Study, which is a US study tracking the development of 561 adopted children. I want to understand how children are both shaped by their environment and are responsible for shaping their environment. Studying adopted children is ideal for this. As I did so, I read more about Franklin’s resistance to her new environment’s attempts to shape her.

In 1951, Franklin was appointed to lead a research group at King’s College London. She immediately clashed with her new colleague, Maurice Wilkins, who — despite being the same level of seniority as Franklin — assumed that she’d been hired to be his assistant. A high achieving academic, already an expert in the field of diffraction research, Franklin had no intention of assisting Wilkins, a shy man who she was utterly underwhelmed by and considered to be “middle class” and as “mediocre” and “positively repulsive” as some of her other male contemporaries[1]. Franklin set out to produce X-ray photographs of DNA, and after months of attempts she produced a particularly perfect image, known as Photo 51. The image turned out to be pivotal in the search for DNA’s structure.

In January 1953, Wilkins — who subsequently confessed that he should’ve asked her permission — did something now widely considered unethical. He shared Photo 51 with a rival scientist, James Watson. Watson recalls the moment he set eyes on it — “my mouth fell open and my pulse started to race.”[2] He’d spent years trying to figure out the structure of DNA and had most recently been working with his colleague Francis Crick on a triple helix model without success. Franklin’s image made it immediately clear to Watson and Crick that DNA had a double helix structure and they radically adapted their model in line with her image.

Watson had earlier attended and been greatly influenced by a lecture delivered by Franklin on DNA, in which she had described it as possibly being “a big helix with several chains”[3]. After the lecture he had excitedly rushed back to Cambridge to begin work on a helical model with Crick — but in his bestselling memoir, “The Double Helix”, Watson’s only reflection on the lecture was that Franklin might have looked better if she’d removed her glasses and changed her hairstyle[4].

Watson, Crick and Wilkins went on to win the Nobel prize in 1962 for the discovery of the structure of DNA. Franklin had died four years earlier, at the age of 37 — likely as a result of exposure to radiation while capturing her X-ray images — and was not included in the prize. It wasn’t until decades later that her contribution became widely acknowledged, though never formally credited.

The centenary of Franklin’s birth prompts reflection on the development of genetics research and the seismic changes that have occurred in the field over the past 100 years. Although the focus has naturally been on the many discoveries which have revolutionised our understanding of the human body, it’s noteworthy that the environment for women in academia has also changed over this period. Franklin captured photo 51 at a time when the hiring of female staff in academia was extremely rare — now no longer the case — and when male staff lunched in a large, comfortable dining room, whereas, female staff ate in the students’ hall[5]. It’s not surprising then that Franklin was “exceptionally lonely”[6] in the man’s world of the academic community of the 1950s. Today, in the age of the #MeToo movement and a persistent gender pay gap, there is clearly room for continued progress. However, I feel lucky to be studying 100 years later than Franklin, at a time when we are better able to recognise the contribution that women have made to science and acknowledge that their contributions haven’t always been properly credited.

[1] As expressed in a letter of her’s written in 1953

[2] Watson J. The double helix. London: Phoenix; 2010.

[3] Lecture Notes of Franklin. Headed ‘Colloquium November 1951’, cited in Sayre, 1975.

[4] Watson J. The double helix. London: Phoenix; 2010.

[5] Sayre A. Rosalind Franklin and DNA. [Bridgewater, NJ]: Distributed by Paw Prints/Baker & Taylor; 2009.

[6] Ibid.