Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A post for Ada Lovelace day

You might be wondering who Ada Lovelace is. I didn't know either, until I saw a facebook post about her day from my friend Bobbie, whose post for Ada Lovelace day is here.

You can read about Ada here, but in a nutshell she was a mathematician born in 1815, a woman who wrote the first programs for the much more famous Charles Babbage's proposed computer, and the first person to conceptualize computer software.

Ada Lovelace day was started last year by Suw Charman-Anderson, who blogs at Chocolate and Vodka. She proposed that 24th of March mark Ada Lovelace day, a day of remembrance to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science through blogging about a woman in science of technology.

As a woman, scientist and blogger I just had to contribute.

One of my great role models and heroines is the late Rosalind Franklin. In fact our daughter,  who I call Geekygirl here on the blog, is named for her. (And with her with her insatiable curiosity, unwavering need to do things her own way and her default response of skepticism to any attempt to tell her anything, she seems to be well suited for a career in science!)

Dr. Franklin is now quite well known for her work in elucidating the structure of DNA, and in so revealing the truly incredible. That this self replicating biological molecule holds the secret of life. The discovery of the role of DNA in the perpetuation of an organism had profound implications on biological science. It told us once and for all that without a doubt all life on earth is related, from bacteria to plants to man. It has allowed us to figure out in once unimaginable detail how the processes of life work. Like any great scientific discovery it opened doors which give a tiny glimpse of just how much more there is yet to understand.

I'm a molecular biologist (which means a biologist who works with DNA) by training, and everything I do every day, all the research I have ever done, is dependent upon that discovery, back in 1953, by Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin. The landmark paper describing the discovery didn't credit Dr. Franklin though. Watson and Crick subsequently admitted that her data had been critical to the discovery. She didn't get the Nobel Prize, because she died before it was awarded, so it went only to Dr's Watson, Crick and Wilkins. The story has been beautifully told in the move "the double helix" with Juliet Stevenson playing Dr. Franklin to Jeff Goldblum's Dr. Watson, and controversy still smolders over who knew what and when. Anyone who works in a lab can appreciate the complexities of discovery and authorship, but it seems pretty clear that the institutional sexism of the time and the quest for personal glory by the other protagonists in the story dealt Dr. Franklin a poor deal.

It was thanks to women like Dr. Franklin, who succeeded against all odds to make a career in science, that the way forward has been a little easier for the rest of us. How hard must it have been for her? She was labeled as prickly and difficult.  I can't imagine how she could have possibly succeeded without being anything other than rather bolshy, given that it is highly probable she was surrounded by egotistical misogynists.

I feel angry for her but also grateful to her. There is a bitter irony in her early death from ovarian cancer at 37 (two years younger than I am now). It isn't known, but one could speculate that she may have carried a DNA mutation in one of the BRCA genes, known to cause breast and ovarian cancer.  Thanks to the discovery of DNA, and the subsequent the gene sequencing efforts by the next generations of scientists, women can now be screened for this DNA mutation and some can avoid this deadly disease.

I also wanted to use my post to call out Nancy Hopkins of MIT, a prolific developmental biologist, who found herself forced into an activist position when jostling for lab space with her male colleagues at MIT. She chaired a committee investigating unconscious gender bias which prompted a broader examination of gender equity in science, back in the late 1990's.

She came to speak at UCSF about her experiences fighting for gender equity when I was a postdoc there, and I remember her remarks to the audience. She said that her talk at UCSF was the first time she had drawn an audience composed equally of men and women, and it was the first time someone as senior as the (male) Vice Dean of the University had introduced her. UCSF was a wonderful place to be a woman in science, which may be why last year the institution was honored with a Nobel prize to Elizabeth Blackburn, another phenomenal woman scientist.

If it isn't too late, and you have a post you would like to share, please go and add it over at the site, or just pop over and learn something about some pretty cool women.