Rosalind Franklin and racing for the double helix

Girlfriend S. was over at my place the other night wrapping a wedding shower gift for a friend in Chicago, when she saw me get very agitated at the TV. When she asked why, she got a 30-60 second spiel about how I was watching Nova on PBS and they were talking about Rosalind Franklin — the pioneering X-ray crystalographer who made invaluable contributions to the understanding of the structure of DNA and the structure of viruses. A bit taken aback by this outburst, and by a few others that followed, she told me to turn the TV off because it was obviously getting on my nerves a little too much.

Before proceeding further, I feel that I must note a few things about Rosalind Franklin. The discovery of structure of DNA is generally attributed to James Watson and Francis Crick. While the ultimate explanation of this most important of molecules was ultimately theirs, they were, to quote Sir Isaac Newton, “standing on the shoulders of giants”. One of those giants was Rosalind Franklin. She basically did all the research lab work that provided the data used by Watson and Crick to discover the structure of DNA. That she did not make this discovery on her own was simply a matter of time (she was a brilliant scientist who would have eventually made the discovery herself)… and due to the fact that Watson and Crick managed to see her research data before they were fully published. As such, many feel that she should be credited as a co-discoverer of DNA… a feeling compounded by the fact that she could not share the Nobel Prize won by Watson, Crick, and Maurice Wilkins because she died years before the Prize was given, and it cannot be given posthumously. Modern feminist critics can also hold her up as an example of the brilliant and capable woman scorned and turned away by the “old boy” network, left to languish instead revered for her accomplishments.

I think that my irritations at that particular episode of Nova were clearly of the moment; I had just asked for my girlfriend’s engagement ring the day before, and I was still a bit off balance emotionally. At the same time though, I have since reflected that the example of Franklin’s life also resonates with me for some deeply personal reasons. Those resonances now leave me with some questions about my own field of study and how women are treated in it.

My parents were both chemists who met while working for IBM. As my mother was completely the professional equal of my father, I think I grew up with the basic assumption that women could be anything that men can (though would I want a woman fireman who can’t meet the physical requirements developed for men? thats an interesting question). So, this perhaps makes me unaware of what women face out there in the world from men who don’t think as I do… not through any lack of sensitivity, mind you, but just because I look at the world a certain way and don’t always understand when others look at it differently.

I’ve also spent a lot of time in the “ivory towers” of higher learning. I understand how awfully petty professors and researchers can be to each other… and how political and polemic research can be. The academic environment where this “field study” in academic behavior took place is an EXTREMELY leftist and politically correct University, where narratives of the repression of women by male hierarchy are sought (and often “found”) behind every tree. My advisor there, D., got into a major spat with an incoming female faculty member because, as some have put it, he helped her assemble research to get established and put her into contact with people with research money, only to discover that she was unwilling to share any of the grant money obtained from those contacts. He was, therefore, very concerned that a number of factions on campus would see this is as a gender-related conflict… when the problem was, perhaps, more purely personal.

I also work with computers, a largely male dominated field. This is something I would ideally like to change… but the causes of this imbalance are highly debatable — ranging from the “hierarchical, pro-male way that math and science are taught” to “the inherently male qualities of the computer interface”. Add to this the observation by some of the women in the computer science field that they are up against an “old boy” network when it comes to promotion and advancement, as well as the “male competitive” nature of the publish or perish academic environment and I… feel lost.

Rosalind Franklin’s case tends to resonate with me because I can, in some important ways, see where she was. It cannot have been easy being a woman trying to establish yourself in a nearly all male field — especially when you are better trained and more brilliant than some of your male peers. It also can’t help that you are simply trying to carry on a research program, when some of your younger, brattier colleagues (like Watson & Crick) seem to be obsessed with winning rather than learning, like little boys trying to win a race.

At the same time, I work in a male dominated field and I feel rather blind as to how the system really works today. I’ve always tried to regard my female co-workers and colleagues as my equals, and therefore deserving the respect that arises solely from their merits. But I have the feeling that things are still tough out there for women… or at least they feel that they have to change more to work with the system, than the system has changed to work with them.

I know that a couple well-educated women read this diary on occasion… perhaps they can tell me what it has been like out there for them.

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