Lab Goddess Fibre Club November 2015

This month's colourway comes from a suitably seasonal inspiration (at least it's seasonal this week if you celebrate American Thanksgiving). Behold, the lovely colours of maize:

What does this have to do with Lab Goddesses? Well, I'm glad you asked, because this month's highlighted scientist is modern, a woman who, even though she lived a century after Marie Curie, experienced many similar challenges in her scientific life. I remember when she won her Nobel Prize (I was 11), and the fact that my own scientific exploits have led me to use techniques that directly grew out her groundbreaking research makes this month's scientist even more special to me personally. I'm looking forward to spinning up my November fibre for some super sturdy, warm socks to brighten up cold winter days.

Barbara McClintock (1902-1992)

Barbara McClintock (1902-1992)

Mutable Loci on Cheviot

Mutable Loci on Cheviot

From the Fibre Club insert:

Barbara McClintock was the third of four children born to Thomas and Sara McClintock. She was a very independent and solitary child, but knew her own mind – her original first name was Eleanor, which she rejected at an early age as being too feminine and delicate. She grew up in Brooklyn, NY and had a love of science starting in high school.

In 1919, she went to Cornell University’s College of Agriculture over the objections of her mother, who feared that a college education would make her “unmarriageable”*. Her interest in genetics began in 1921, and a year later she was invited to participate in a graduate genetics course at Cornell by C. B. Hutchison, an early plant geneticist. She credits Hutchison as the reason she continued in genetics.

McClintock received an MA and PhD in botany, and her research focused on cytogenetics in maize, the structure and function of corn chromosomes, the coiled structures in the cell nucleus containing DNA. She developed a technique for staining chromosomes that enabled scientists to see chromosome shape for the first time. By studying chromosome shape, Dr. McClintock was able to link inherited traits to specific chromosomes. In 1930, McClintock was the first person to describe a specific chromosomal shape seen during meiosis, the process that generates reproductive cells like sperm and eggs. Together with Dr. Harriet Creighton, she found that recombination of chromosomes, the swapping of DNA between two chromosomes, was correlated with the appearance of new traits in the resultant offspring plant.

In 1941, after five years at the University of Missouri, Dr, McClintock went to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where she remained for the rest of her career. There she began to analyse the mechanism of mosaic colour patterns of maize seed, and their unstable inheritance. This led to the discovery in 1948 of transposons, mobile genetic elements that are regulated by a mechanism that allows for cells with identical genomes to have different functions. This research was initially met with puzzlement and hostility, and unfortunately, she stopped publishing her research on transposons in 1953 due to fears of alienating the scientific mainstream.

Although she officially retired in 1967, Dr. McClintock continued to pursue research at Cold Spring Harbor. Although a French group discovered similar genetic controlling elements in the early 1960s, Dr. McClintock’s pioneering work was not acknowledged until the early 1970s, when she was widely credited with discovering transposition, and ultimately the discovery of genetic regulation.

Jumping genes in a nutshell

Jumping genes in a nutshell

Barbara McClintock was the third woman ever elected to the National Academy of Science, and was the first female president of the Genetics Society of America, both in 1944. In 1981, she was the first recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Grant, also known as the MacArthur Genius grant. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1983, and was the first woman to win the prize unshared. Her work on “jumping genes” and genetic regulation paved the way for the incredible explosion of molecular biology and genetics in the 80s and 90s. She continued to work at Cold Spring Harbor after winning the Nobel Prize, and died of natural causes in 1992 at the age of 90. True to her mother’s fear, she never married.


* I'm realising as I continue to research future women scientists for these colourways that I am running into a number of similar issues regarding how to convey their work and why I've chosen them without descending into strident feminist outrage, and telling the same story ad nauseum. I hope you'll find these overview interesting and not off putting. Please let me know your thoughts.