The life of a scientist is not one path, it varies person to person. Proteintech's Scientist Spotlight is a monthly highlight of a scientist and their unique journey to discovery.
March Scientist Spotlight- Dr. Marthe Gautier
March 2023 by Afrida Rahman-Enyart, PhD
In 2011, the United Nations declared March 21st “World Down Syndrome Day (WDSD).” The date signified the triplication (trisomy) of the 21st chromosome observed in Down Syndrome. The discovery of trisomy 21 is often credited to Dr. Jérôme Lejeune. However, 50 years after the discovery, it was uncovered that another scientist never received the appropriate credit for her vital role in the finding. This month’s scientist spotlight is on Dr. Marthe Gautier, a physician-scientist who played a critical role in the discovery of trisomy 21, the genetic condition which causes Down Syndrome.
Marthe Gautier was born on September 10th, 1925, and grew up on a farm in the Île-de-France region near Paris. At a very early age, Gautier was enthusiastic about providing care for children and being involved in pediatrics, a passion her mother thoroughly supported. After graduating from a boarding school in 1942, Gautier went to live with her older sister Paulette in Paris. The sisters shared a strong bond and a similar affinity for pediatrics. Gautier began her medical studies while in Paris and worked as an intern at a hospital. During WWII, Nazi occupation rendered Paris a hostile environment and tragically, Paulette was killed by a stray bullet when a fight broke out between German troops and members of the French Resistance. Gautier, understandably heartbroken, honored her sister’s memory by remembering the valuable advice she had once received from her sister: “Don’t forget, we are mere women, and to succeed, we have to work twice as hard as men.”
After her sister’s death, Gautier went on to finish her medical training in pediatric cardiology at the Hôpitaux de Paris. She was one of two women in the program and studied under the mentorship of Robert Debré. After defending her thesis on streptococcus-induced rheumatic fever, Debré secured a scholarship for Gautier to study abroad at Harvard University. Gautier, along with two of her colleagues, became the first interns from the Hôpitaux de Paris to be awarded scholarships to the US. Because the airfare to the US was too expensive, Gautier went on a 5-day journey to the US by boat. While at Harvard, Gautier extended her learning on the use of cortisone in treating cardiovascular disease and techniques in pediatric cardiac surgery. In addition, she also worked part-time as a cell culture technician.
After a year at Harvard, Gautier returned to Paris where she found out that her job in pediatric cardiology at the Bicêtre Hospital was given to a colleague. Gautier learned of an opening at the Trousseau Hospital in the lab of Raymond Turpin whose research focused on polymalformative syndromes, such as Down Syndrome. Turpin hypothesized that chromosomal abnormalities were the root cause of Down Syndrome. However, the exact number of chromosomes and the lack of a cell culture laboratory in France made it difficult to corroborate Turpin’s hypothesis.
In 1956, scientists in Sweden identified that humans had exactly 46 chromosomes, arranged in 23 pairs. Armed with this new information, Turpin proposed counting the number of chromosomes in patients with Down Syndrome. However, Turpin’s research faced a major obstacle: France was not equipped with scientists versed in cell culture. Luckily, Gautier admitted that she had gained this experience at Harvard and Turpin agreed to let her take charge of the project. Since France was still recovering from WWII, scientific research was not a government priority, and thus, minimal funding existed for the project. Adamant in conducting her research, Gautier set up an abandoned laboratory with equipment dating back to the 1920s. Since she had no budget for her research, Gautier took out a loan so that she could purchase the necessary tools for her microscopy experiments. Eventually, Gautier was able to culture human cells in her laboratory by supplementing culture media with serum from her own blood. She began testing cells of children with Down Syndrome compared to control cells. Gautier observed that control cells had exactly 46 chromosomes, whereas cells from children with Down Syndrome had 47. This was the first evidence of chromosomal abnormalities linked to Down Syndrome.
Although Gautier’s findings were groundbreaking, there was no way to document them since the Trousseau Hospital did not have a microscope equipped to capture images. Gautier handed her slides over to another researcher, Jérôme Lejeune, who offered to image the slides in another laboratory that possessed the technology. After imaging the slides, Lejeune failed to return the samples and data to Gautier. Instead, he reported the discovery as his own to Turpin and at the International Congress of Human Genetics conference. In 1959, the findings were published with Lejeune as the first author, Gautier as the second (her name was misspelled as Marie Gauthier), and Turpin as the last author. After the publication, Lejeune was credited with the findings and famously hailed as “the father of trisomy 21.”
Enraged by the disrespect and backstabbing from her own lab, Gautier left the field of genetics and devoted the rest of her career to the care of children with heart disease. For 50 years the truth behind the discovery of trisomy 21 was unknown. Historically, many women have gone ignored or unrecognized for their crucial roles in scientific discoveries, a phenomenon known as the “Matilda Effect.” With a push from a friend, Gautier daringly shared her story of betrayal in 2009 with La Recherche. In 2014, Gautier was invited to receive an award and to speak about her role in the discovery of trisomy 21 at a conference in Bordeaux organized by The French Federation of Human Genetics (FFGH). After receiving word of the event, The Jérôme Lejeune Foundation obtained the rights to be sent a recording of her talk. Not wanting the recording to be used for legal proceedings, the FFGH canceled Gautier’s presentation and presented her award to her in a private ceremony. The Jérôme Lejeune Foundation maintains that there is no evidence that suggests Gautier made the discovery.
Gautier’s story resulted in the ethics committee of the INSERM issuing a statement stressing the importance of integrity for scientific publications and author lists. Even still, the ethics committee acknowledged that both Turpin and Gautier should have been credited, failing to note that Gautier was the primary researcher in the discovery.
1. After More Than 50 Years, a Dispute Over Down Syndrome Discovery. (n.d.). Www.science.org. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from https://www.science.org/content/article/after-more-50-years-dispute-over-down-syndrome-discovery#:~:text=A%20brilliant%20cytogeneticist%20with%20a%20storied%20career%2C%20Lejeune
2. Marthe Gautier, “Forgotten” Discoverer of Trisomy 21, Dies. (n.d.). Medscape. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/974222?reg=1#vp_1
3. Randy Engel interview with Dr. Marthe Gautier, discoverer of trisomy 21. (n.d.). Www.renewamerica.com. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from https://www.renewamerica.com/columns/engel/130306
4. Seidl, C. A. (2022, October 7). Marthe Gautier, Forgotten by the Misogynistic March of History. Cas D’intérêt. https://casdinteret.com/2022/10/marthe-gautier-forgotten-by-the-misogynistic-march-of-history/
Dr. Florence Rena Sabin
February 2023 by Afrida Rahman-Enyart, PhD
“I hope my studies may be an encouragement to other women, especially to young women, to devote their lives to the larger interests of the mind. It matters little whether men or women have the more brains; all we women need to do to exert our proper influence is just to use all the brains we have.” – Dr. Florence Sabin
This month’s Scientist Spotlight is on Dr. Florence Rena Sabin, an anatomist who was a pioneer for women in science and later became a prominent public health activist in Colorado.
Florence Rena Sabin was born in 1871 in Central City, Colorado. A few years after her birth, her family moved to Denver. Sabin’s mother, Serena, was a schoolteacher and her father, George, was a mining engineer. Unfortunately, Sabin’s early life was struck with several tragedies. In 1876, Sabin’s brother was born but became ill and died shortly after. In 1878, the Sabin family added another baby boy, Albert. However, 9 days after giving birth, Sabin’s mother passed away from puerperal fever. Sabin’s father, unable to care for all his children, sent Sabin and her sister to a private school for girls. Less than a year later, Sabin’s brother Albert also passed away. After the death of Albert, Sabin and her sister were sent to live with their uncle in Chicago. During this time, mainly being influenced by her uncle, Sabin’s love for nature, books, and music blossomed. The family later settled in Vermont to be with Sabin’s grandparents. In 1885, Sabin began attending Vermont Academy where she became fascinated by science. At the academy, both her and her sister were recognized for their superior intellect.
Sabin continued her studies by attending Smith College where she earned her bachelor’s degree. During her time there, she was most interested and excelled in zoology, biology, chemistry, and geology. However, due to the gender discrimination during the era, Sabin had difficulties getting accepted to a graduate program that would allow her to advance her career. Eventually, she settled to moving back to Denver to teach mathematics and zoology. After some persistent applying, Sabin was one of fourteen women accepted into graduate school at John Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1896. Johns Hopkins, at the time, was one of the few universities that supported the acceptance of women students. During her time in graduate school, Sabin caught the attention of Franklin P. Mall, and, under his direction, she focused on two main projects. Her first project focused on modeling a 3D system of an infant brain stem, a model that was eventually used in medical schools. Her second project focused on understanding the development of the lymphatic system.
After obtaining her PhD in 1900, Sabin did an internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital where she received a research fellowship. Following her fellowship, Sabin continued teaching at Johns Hopkins in the Department of Anatomy. She was then promoted first as an Associate Professor and then as a Professor in Embryology and Histology in 1917. This was a triumphant day for women in science as Sabin became the first woman to earn a full professorship at a medical college. As her time as a professor, Sabin studied topics related to hematology, the histology of the brain, and tuberculosis.
In 1925, Sabin left her job at Johns Hopkins due to institutional discrimination and because she wished to focus on her research full time. She joined the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research as the head of the Department of Cellular Studies. She continued her studies on the lymphatic system, blood cells, and tuberculosis there. That same year she was voted into the National Academy of Sciences as the first woman member. Sabin also became a member of the National Tuberculosis Association in an effort to control the spread of tuberculosis. Her tuberculosis research focused on the role of monocytes and the formation of antibodies in response to foreign substances.
In 1938 Sabin retired from her research position. While in retirement, she was approached by Governor Charles Vivian to chair Colorado’s new health subcommittee. Sabin became an immense advocate for health care legislation. She was so passionate about this new cause that she even traveled through a snowstorm to give a speech on health reform. As an advocate, she had laws in her name, including the “Sabin Health Laws” which modernized public health in Colorado by providing more hospital beds for tuberculosis patients. The implementation of the “Sabin Health Laws” correlated with a significant decrease in tuberculosis cases. Many people, including the governor, were quite shocked with how invested Sabin was in health reform. Sabin had theories as to why she was chosen as the committee chair on public health. Her thoughts were that the governor did not care about public health and appointed an elderly woman because he thought she would not be able to accomplish anything. Proving him wrong, Sabin eventually became manager of health and charities for Denver and donated 3 years of her salary to their research.
Her advocacy for public health issues was not ignored. University of Colorado’s Department of Medicine named their building the Florence R. Sabin Building for Research in Cellular Biology. Additionally, after her death in 1953, Colorado donated a statue of Sabin to the National Statuary Hall Collection. Sabin was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. Dr. Florence Rena Sabin was a pioneering woman in science and continues to be an inspiration, showing us that your gender and age don’t reveal your ability to be a prolific scientist and advocate.
Biographical Overview. (n.d.). Florence R. Sabin - Profiles in Science. https://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/spotlight/rr/feature/biographical-overview
Changing the Face of Medicine | Florence Rena Sabin. (2015). Nih.gov. https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_283.html
Florence Rena Sabin | American anatomist. (2019). In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Florence-Rena-Sabin
Florence Rena Sabin | Encyclopedia.com. (n.d.). Www.encyclopedia.com. https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/medicine/medicine-biographies/florence-rena-sabin
yongli. (2016, August 11). Dr. Florence Rena Sabin. Coloradoencyclopedia.org. https://coloradoencyclopedia.org/article/dr-florence-rena-sabin
January, 2023 by Lucie Reboud
Eunice Foote was a highly talented and pioneering woman who made significant contributions to the field of climate science. She serves as an example of the many forgotten female scientists whose work has had a lasting impact. This month, we are highlighting Foote's life and discoveries in our Scientist Spotlight.
Eunice Newton was born in 1819, one of twelve children born to her parents Thirza and Isaac Newton Jr, a distant relative to Sir Isaac Newton. She grew up and lived most of her life in New York. New York was an epicenter for social activism at the time, foreshadowing Foote’s activism in women’s rights campaigns. She was educated at a women’s preparatory school, which encouraged students to attend science courses at the nearby Rensselaer School. The teaching methods at Rensselaer were considered innovative at the time, encouraging the use of experimental demonstration, as well as studying the underlying scientific theory. There, Foote learned the foundations of designing a science experiment, forming hypotheses, and drawing conclusions from observations.
She married lawyer and inventor Elisha Foote in 1841 and together they had two daughters, Mary and Augusta. In their Seneca Falls home, Eunice built a lab where she began investigating sunlight's effect on the temperature of different gases. At the time, scientists were debating why mountain peaks were colder than valleys despite being closer to the sun. Foote’s experimental design was simple, using her limited available resources. Gas cylinders were filled with different compressed gas mixtures and levels of moisture, and identical mercury thermometers were placed in each cylinder. She then placed the cylinders in the sunlight and recorded the temperature change. She observed that a higher CO2 concentration resulted in a greater rise in temperature and a significantly slower drop in temperature once removed from the sunlight. She also observed this trend when a higher concentration of water vapor was present.
From this simple experimental setup, Foote drew a ground-breaking conclusion that would foreshadow the global warming of today: “An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature. If at one period of its history, the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than as present, an increased temperature from its action, as well as from increased weight must have necessarily resulted”. Foote described the greenhouse effect decades before cars, planes and the concept of air pollution were around. She published her findings in a paper titled “Circumstances affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays” in the 1856 edition of the American Journal of Science and Arts. Her work was also presented at the 10th annual AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meeting. However, Foote did not present her work. Instead, Joseph Henry, the director of the Smithsonian, read her paper to the audience. Having a male figure present her work was perhaps a bid for it to be taken more seriously by the audience.
There are limitations to Foote’s experiments, as she only considered the visible light spectrum. However, it is now known that infrared (IR) radiation from the earth is the heat source of the greenhouse effect. Irish physicist John Tyndall is known as the father of climate science, but his work on the greenhouse effect was published in 1859, three years after Foote’s publication, without referencing her work. Tyndall had access to far more sophisticated equipment (Foote was working out of her own home), support, and education. Foote was also working unpaid, highlighting her love of science, her curious spirit, and her dedication. Evidence suggests Tyndall was unaware of Foote’s work; women and Americans were considered amateur scientists and were not respected at the time by their European counterparts. Foote’s breakthrough was largely forgotten before being re-discovered in 2011 by geologist Ray Sorenson.
Foote published one more paper titled “On a New Source of Electrical Excitation”, where she investigated static electricity. Her research career ended after this, but Foote was also a keen inventor and later on filed patents for rubber shoe inserts and paper-making machines. Foote was most importantly a woman’s rights activist. Along with her neighbor and friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her husband Elisha, Foote helped organize the first woman’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. They signed the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments, which demanded equal social and legal rights for women, including the right to vote. She was also described as a talented portrait and landscape painter. In addition to being a scientist, Foote had many other talents and her work has recently gained the recognition and attention that it deserves.
Dr. Cagney Coomer
December, 2022 by guest writer Sepideh Dadkhah
This month's Scientific Spotlight is on Dr. Cagney Coomer, a postdoctoral fellow in the Halpern Laboratory in Molecular and Systems Biology at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine. Dr. Coomer has significantly contributed to scientific outreach towards underrepresented groups of boys and girls in America. Her efforts continue to create a more inclusive environment in science. Scientific outreach is crucial for increasing diversity in science; gauging public support for research funding; and finding solutions to societal challenges, including sustainability, climate change, and pollution.
Dr. Coomer has recently been selected as one of only 25 fellows for the Hanna H. Gray program by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She studied retinal development and regeneration in zebrafish at the University of Kentucky. She is currently focusing on developing trans-synaptic tracing techniques to study neural circuits in zebrafish. These techniques will give us a deeper understanding of the development of neural circuits and the communication between them. In addition to her long track of achievements in research and academia, she is very passionate about scientific outreach. One of her most noteworthy achievements is the establishment of NERD SQUAD Inc, a non-profit STEM outreach organization. NERD SQUAD has reached hundreds of underrepresented students through research activities designed to increase interest in science. NERD SQUAD recruits high school students to act as mentors in their communities, carrying out various outreach projects. Dr. Coomer was motivated by the lack of diversity in science and academia.
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to sit down for a virtual chat with Dr. Coomer to discuss what motivated her to start NERD SQUAD, and how she has made their scientific outreach activities interesting and inclusive.
"One time, ten years ago, I heard this keynote speaker talk about the amount of money the science industry brings into the American economy. They talked about how people of color only make up five percent of that workforce, and women of color make up 1.2 points, and I was just like, ‘wow!’ I was thinking to myself, ‘well, why don't people of color do science, like, what is it?’"
Dr. Coomer went out into her community to try to find the answer to this question. Many of the people she interviewed would respond that they were fundamentally not good at math or science. This led her to create a list of black scientists so that she could prove the contrary. Unfortunately, on this journey, she realized that many black scientists were not labeled as scientists.
"They call them inventors, or they never use the term sciences. Madam C.J. Walker was basically a biotechnician, but they called her an entrepreneur."
"I needed to engage in these conversations to realize that: I am a scientist. I am black. I am from your neighborhood. You know me, and I work as a scientist, and I never even thought to say that I'm a scientist. And what I felt like needed to happen was it needed to be a change of culture."
Dr. Coomer was trying to change the culture by showing people how science influences everyday life, and how anyone can succeed in science. The activities in NERD SQUAD are designed to focus on an overarching field of science and a specific career to make the activity more relatable.
"One year, our overarching science was biochemistry, and our group of kids was a group of middle school girls, so we turned them into cosmetic chemists. For the first half, they made lip gloss, eye shadow, face masks, and bath bombs, and in the second half of the semester, they had to develop their own products. They had to come up with a logo and labels, and they had to make a little commercial. We had a graphic designer come in and teach them about Logos, and if Covid had not happened, we would have had a science night where the families could come and they could buy the products, but only if the kids talked about the science they use to create the products that they had developed."
Projects such as these inspire students to think about science differently and reflect on their ambitions at home. Dr. Coomer also highlights how "bridge mentoring" is essential for community engagement. Dr. Coomer believes these mentoring bridges allow mentors and mentees to connect to each other because mentors are at a stage in life where mentees can actively see themselves in their future.
"We let high schoolers be in charge because they are the ones that think of the cool stuff. They are the ones that are going to class every day. They know what a classroom looks like. Whom do we learn how to teach from? From the people who are actively learning. We build these bridges of Mentoring. "
Following our talk about outreach activities, I asked Dr. Coomer how she managed both outreach and research successfully. She believed that the community she met through graduate school and beyond inspired her to create so many opportunities for school-age students. Her community also helped her feel less intimidated in a very intimidating scientific environment.
To wrap up our talk, I asked Dr. Coomer what she thinks the next big tool will be in her field, and she shared with me her interest in Trans-Tango, a tool that allows trans-synaptic mapping of presynaptic and postsynaptic partners. Trans-Tango was first developed in Drosophila and is currently being optimized for use in vertebrates.
"In order for us to have a complete understanding of neurological diseases and brain function, in general, we have to understand how neural circuits work and the pathways underlining all these brain functions, and to do that, we have to have tools to map neural circuits, and that is the frontier right now, and it's exciting to be a part of a team that's on the frontier of that.
Want to get involved with NERD SQUAD? Follow them on social media
Facebook: @NERD SQUAD INC
Dr. Lise Meitner
November, 2022 by Lucie Reboud.
This month’s Scientist Spotlight recounts the life of Lise Meitner, the “German Marie Curie” as Einstein called her, who was overlooked for her key contribution to the discovery of nuclear fission and its explosive potential. She was a pioneer in nuclear physics and as a woman in science during the turbulent 20th century.
Meitner was born to an upper-class Jewish family in 1878 in Vienna, Austria, the third of eight children for Philipp and Hedwig Meitner. Her father was one of the first Jewish lawyers to practice in Austria. Meitner and all her siblings pursued advanced educations and were brought up with the open liberal spirit of their father. At the time, women were prohibited from higher education in Austria until 1897. Lise was a curious and enthusiastic young woman who joined the University of Vienna in 1901. She became the second woman to earn a doctorate in physics at the university in 1906.
Lise then moved to Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin where she attended the lectures of famed German physicist Max Planck. Here she also began her lifelong collaboration and friendship with chemist Otto Hahn. As women were not allowed to work in higher education in Prussia, Meitner only had access to the basement laboratory through a back door and was forced to use the restrooms in a nearby restaurant as she could not enter the institution. Her early work with Hahn focused on the physical separation of neutrons from elements, the discovery of several isotopes, and understanding the resulting energy release, known as beta-radiation. In 1921, Meitner and Hahn moved to the newly founded Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) for Chemistry where they continued their work on nuclear isomerism and radioactive decay. Meitner had to work unpaid at first. That was until Max Planck, who notoriously opposed the education of women, took a keen interest in Meitner and hired her as his assistant, which entitled her to a salary. Her research was interrupted during the First World War when Hahn was called to active duty in the army. During that time she worked as an x-ray nurse technician back in Austria. Upon her return to Berlin, she again pursued her research, mostly alone as all the men were still at war. She worked on the beta-radiation spectrum and discovered a new element, the mother isotope of actinium – protactinium 231 (231Pa).
Meitner, dedicated to her work, her research, and her teaching, became the first woman to be granted the right to habilitation for Physics in Prussia in 1922. A few years later, in 1926, she was the first woman to become a university professor in Physics in Germany. The next few years were spent consolidating her and Hahn’s work on radioactive decay, learning about X-ray spectroscopy with Manne Siegbahn in Sweden, and expanding her research at the KWI for Chemistry, becoming head of her physics section.
In 1933, following the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the implementation of his Nazi regime, the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service removed Jewish people from public positions, which included academia. Meitner was stripped of her professorship and her habilitation. Through the unification of Germany and Austria, she also lost her Austrian citizenship, which made fleeing Nazi Germany very difficult. Countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark would not accept her due to her invalid Austrian passport. She eventually found refuge in Sweden with the help of fellow physicist Eva Von Bahr with whom she stayed and who arranged a research position for her at Manne Siegbahn’s institute. Upon her departure to Sweden, Hahn gifted her a diamond ring he had inherited from his mother to use in case of emergency. Meitner stayed in close contact with Hahn through letters.
During the Christmas holiday in 1938, Meitner’s nephew Otto Frisch visited her in Sweden. She had received a letter from Hahn detailing an experiment he and Fritz Strassman had undertaken where they generated Barium (56Ba) by bombarding Uranium (235U) with neutrons. Although Hahn was convinced of what he had observed, he could not explain it. It had never been previously observed for fragments any larger than a proton (alpha particles) to dissociate from a nucleus, whereas Barium represents 40% of the mass of a Uranium atom. While on a walk in the snow with Frisch, Meitner suggested that the nucleus, known to be more of a liquid than a brittle solid, could be elongated and eventually split roughly in half when disrupted by neutron attack. The strong surface tension of the neutron “drop” could be overcome through their electrical charge. Meitner then calculated that the two resulting nuclei were smaller than the total mass of the Uranium and, according to Newton’s energy formula E=mc2, when mass disappears energy is created. This explained the great energy release (approximately 200MeV) of the loose neutrons from the division of the Uranium nucleus. Meitner and Frisch had just explained the concept of nuclear fission, a term they borrowed from biologists who used it to explain cell division. Their discovery revolutionized nuclear physics. It was quickly understood that if nuclear fission released enough free neutrons, it would create a chain reaction releasing very large amounts of energy, the principle behind nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Meitner and Frisch published their finding in Nature in 1939, referencing Hahn and Strassman’s work. However, Hahn and Strassman published theirs around the same time, but without acknowledging Meitner’s contribution.
In 1944, Hahn won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “the discovery of the fission of the heavy atom nuclei,” but Meitner’s contribution was again not recognized. This was partially rectified when Meitner, Hahn, and Strassman were awarded the Enrico Fermi Award in 1966. Meitner was nominated 49 times for a Nobel Prize during her lifetime but never won. Following her discovery of nuclear fission, she gained media attention in the US and was invited to work on the Manhattan Project, a WWII research project for the development of nuclear weapons. She immediately refused, stating “I will have nothing to do with a bomb.” Meitner openly criticized her colleagues who remained in Germany during WWII, affirming their lack of opposition was an indirect contribution to the atrocities of the war.
After the war, Meitner remained in Sweden and moved to the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and eventually applied for Swedish citizenship in 1949. She worked on R1, the first nuclear reactor in Sweden, and was a visiting professor at multiple universities in the US, including Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia. She eventually retired in 1960 and moved to England, where most of her relatives had emigrated. She died in 1968 in a nursing home in Cambridgeshire and her nephew, Frisch, had her tombstone engraved with the quote “A physicist who never lost her humanity.” Element 109, the heaviest element known on Earth, was named Meitnerium (Mt) in her honor in 1992.
Lise Meitner: A battle for ultimate truth. Available at: https://www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/meitner.html (Accessed: October 20, 2022).
December 1938: Lise Meitner & Otto Frisch discover nuclear fission (2007) American Physical Society. Available at: https://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/200712/physicshistory.cfm (Accessed: October 20, 2022).
Lise Meitner Atomic Heritage Foundation. Available at: https://www.atomicheritage.org/profile/lise-meitner (Accessed: October 20, 2022).
Lise Meitner (1878 - 1968) | Biographies. Available at: https://www.atomicarchive.com/resources/biographies/meitner.html (Accessed: October 20, 2022).
October, 2022 by Afrida Rahman-Enyart, PhD
This month’s Scientist Spotlight is on Tu Youyou, a phytochemist best known for her discovery of the most successful malaria-fighting drug, artemisinin.
Tu was born in 1930 in Ningbo, China. Her family valued education for generations and made it a priority for every family member to excel in their schooling. Therefore, Tu attended some of the best private schools in the region. However, at the age of 16, she became ill with tuberculosis and had to withdraw from school for two years to recover. This eye-opening experience motivated her to finish her education and advance her career in medical research. Tu had previously written in an autobiography that “if I could learn and have (medical) skills, I could not only keep myself healthy but also cure many other patients.” With this goal in mind, after finishing high school, Tu enrolled at the Medical School at Peking University (later Beijing Medical College) and majored in pharmacognostical studies.
During her collegiate studies, Tu gained substantial knowledge of medicinal plants, their origins, and how to classify them. Additionally, she was provided with training on how to properly extract the active components from plants using the correct solvents and further classify their chemical structures. After graduating from her pharmacy program, Tu went on to work at what is now the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing. There she studied Lobelia chinensis, a conventional herb used in traditional Chinese medicine. Lobelia chinensis is commonly used to treat schistosomiasis, a disease that was prevalent during the early to mid-1900s in South China and was caused by urinary tract or intestinal infection by the parasitic flatworms schistosomes. Between 1959 and 1962, Tu was enrolled in a full-time training program on Chinese medical theory and practice. The courses were geared toward those with a Western medical background who wanted to learn about traditional Chinese medicine.
During this time, malaria, the mosquito-borne parasitic disease, was making a resurgence. In the past, malaria could be treated by chloroquine and quinolines. However, the evolution in the 1960s of a drug-resistant malaria plagued the globe after a failed attempt to completely eradicate the disease. In addition, soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War and citizens in southern China were falling deathly ill with this new-age malaria. Therefore, in 1967 the Chinese government, with the push from North Vietnam, initiated Project 523. This secret military project was set up to find novel medications for malaria. In 1969, Tu was selected to lead a Project 523 research group at the Institute of Chinese Materia Medica. Her goal was to search for a potential treatment for malaria using traditional Chinese medicines. After studying malaria patients in Hainan, Tu began screening Chinese herbs as potential treatments. Following extensive screening of over 2,000 prescriptions and many failed experiments in mice, Tu refocused her attention on reviewing the literature on traditional Chinese medicines. She realized that previous attempts had been made to use herbs from the Artemisia family to destroy malaria parasites. As Artemisia annua was used to treat fevers, a common symptom of malaria, in theory, utilizing the active components of this plant should be successful. However, the results of its effectiveness were inconsistent. After conducting a thorough review of the literature, Tu realized that most medicinal herbs were boiled and concentrated into a liquor. She had the idea that the heat from boiling might have inactivated the medicinal properties of the plants and that, instead, extraction should occur at a low temperature. Tu and her team began testing various plants, including those from the Artemisia family, and identified that artemisinin ethyl ether extract prevented malaria in 100% of the experiments conducted in rodents and monkeys.
After reporting her findings at the National Project 523 meeting, her team began producing bulk quantities of artemisinin extract. Unfortunately, because China was undergoing a cultural revolution, many pharmaceutical manufacturers were closed. Therefore, Tu and her team had to do all the extractions without proper equipment and ventilation, exposing them to dangerous solvent fumes. These conditions began to affect her and her team’s health. However, Tu and her team refused to give up. In another potential roadblock, toxicology reports raised concerns that the artemisinin extract was not safe. To get the medication to patients without increasing delays, Tu and members of her team volunteered to take the extract and were monitored for side effects. After one week, no side effects were reported. Finally, in 1972, artemisinin went to clinical trial and has since saved millions of lives in developing countries. Although Tu’s work received significant attention in China, her findings were not recognized internationally until much later. The World Health Organization did not start recommending artemisinin as the first defense for malaria until the 1990s and in 2006 it became the go-to treatment for malaria in many countries. In 2015, Tu became the first Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work in treating malaria.
Tu’s role in Project 523 did not come without sacrifices. Since the project was so demanding and her husband was away for work, Tu had to send her one-year-old daughter to live with her parents and her four-year-old daughter to live with her teacher’s family. Tu recollects, “My younger daughter couldn’t recognize me when I visited my parents three years later, and my elder daughter hid behind her teacher when I picked her up upon returning to Beijing.” After her work on Project 523, Tu worked as a researcher (similar to a full professor) and then as an academic advisor for doctoral candidates at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. At 91, she is currently the chief scientist at the academy. Tu’s story is particularly inspirational as her hard work, determination, and bravery triumphed over her pause from school, her lack of postgraduate training, and the obstacles presented to her after her discovery. Tu Youyou had a passion to help people and she devoted her life to doing just that.
Tu Youyou. (2021, September 22). Women in Exploration. Retrieved October 3, 2022, from https://www.womeninexploration.org/timeline/tu-youyou/
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015. (2015). NobelPrize.org. Retrieved October 3, 2022, from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/2015/tu/biographical/
Top 10 Amazing Facts about Tu Youyou. (2022, May 31). Discover Walks Blog. Retrieved October 3, 2022, from https://www.discoverwalks.com/blog/china/top-10-amazing-facts-about-tu-youyou/
Tu Youyou | Biography, Malaria, Nobel Prize, & Facts. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved October 3, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Tu-Youyou
Dr. Nettie Stevens
September 2022 by Afrida Rahman-Enyart, PhD
This month’s “Scientist Spotlight” features geneticist Nettie Stevens, who made landmark discoveries in the fields of embryology and cytogenetics during her tragically short time as a scientist. Stevens is best known for her discovery of the sex chromosomes.
Nettie Stevens was born in 1861 in Cavendish, Vermont as one of four children, two boys and two girls. Unfortunately, both of her brothers died at a young age. Additional tragedy struck the family in 1865 when Stevens’s mother also passed away. After her mother’s death, Stevens’s father remarried and the family moved to Westford, Vermont. As a carpenter, Stevens’s father was able to provide a quality education for his daughters. During the late 1800s, however, most women did not pursue professions beyond being a teacher, nurse, or secretary. Stevens did not want to follow this trajectory and, instead, dreamed of becoming a scientist.
At school, Stevens excelled in her studies and was one of three women to graduate from Westford Academy between 1872 and 1883. After graduating, she became a teacher with the hope of saving money to pay for higher education. After three years of teaching, Stevens went on to study at what is now Westfield State University. She graduated in two years at the top of her class. Afterwards, Stevens returned to teaching and worked as a librarian to save money for additional schooling. Finally, at 35, she was able to enroll at Stanford University, where she became specifically interested in physiology and histology. She received both her BA and MA in biology from Stanford. Stevens then went on to pursue her PhD in cytology at Bryn Mawr College under the mentorship of Thomas Hunt Morgan. Her thesis work focused on developmental biology and regeneration, including the development of sperm and eggs in sea urchins and worms. She did exceptionally well in graduate school and was even named a President’s European Fellow, which allowed her to study abroad in Italy and Germany. In 1903, Stevens received her PhD. She continued to a postdoc at the Carnegie Institution, where she received several grants to study heredity related to Mendel’s laws and sex determination. In 1905 she wrote a research paper and won an award for the best scientific paper written by a woman.
Stevens’s work on sex determination was groundbreaking. She observed that sperm from male mealworms sometimes contained a small chromosome (now recognized as the Y chromosome) or a large chromosome (now recognized as the X chromosome). She identified that whether a sperm carried the small or large chromosome determined the sex of the offspring, since all eggs carried only the large chromosome. She concluded that the male partner determined the biological sex of progeny. Stevens’s discovery was the first time that scientists had been able to physically observe differences in chromosomes and link these to a phenotypic trait. At the time, it was commonly thought that biological sex was determined either by the mother or other environmental factors. In fact, Stevens’s findings directly refuted the previous idea of Clarence Erwin McClung, who argued that the X chromosome determined biological sex. Around the same time as Stevens’s findings, Edmund Wilson made a similar discovery while studying spermatogenesis. However, Wilson’s research only examined male and not female germ cells. Additionally, Stevens’s work was based on Mendelian theory and, although Wilson obtained similar results, his findings deviated from this theory.
Although Stevens’s findings were momentous, they were not appreciated during the time and did not receive the attention they deserved until 1933, when genetics became a more popular field of study. Additionally, as a woman scientist, her findings were not taken seriously, and she was often overshadowed by her male colleagues. For example, while both Morgan and Wilson were invited to be speakers at a conference to discuss their ideas on sex determination, Stevens was not. In addition, many textbooks credit Stevens’s findings to McClung, Morgan, or Wilson. Interestingly, at the time Stevens published her findings, Morgan disagreed with the conclusions.
After her postdoc and findings in sex determination, Stevens got a job at Bryn Mawr College and eventually became an Associate in Experimental Morphology. In 1912, nine years after receiving her PhD, she was finally offered her dream job as a research professor at Bryn Mawr College. Unfortunately, she passed away from breast cancer before she could accept the offer. Although Stevens’s time as a scientist was cut short, she left an outstanding legacy, publishing 38 papers during her time as a scientist.
Although Stevens’s accomplishments were not appreciated while she was alive, her success has been celebrated more recently. For example, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994, was the center of a Google Doodle to celebrate her 155th birthday in 2016, and had a Science and Innovation Center named after her at Westfield State University. Nettie Stevens was determined to become a scientist, and no matter how difficult her journey was, she became a legendary one.
Nettie Stevens | American biologist and geneticist | Britannica. (2020). In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Nettie-Stevens
Nettie Stevens: Biography and Contributions - science - 2022. (n.d.). Warbletoncouncil. Retrieved September 6, 2022, from https://warbletoncouncil.org/nettie-stevens-8898
Nettie Stevens: A Discoverer of Sex Chromosomes | Learn Science at Scitable. (2014). Nature.com. https://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/nettie-stevens-a-discoverer-of-sex-chromosomes-6580266/
Dr. Esther Lederberg
August, 2022 by Afrida Rahman-Enyart, PhD
This month’s “Scientist Spotlight” features microbiologist Dr. Esther Lederberg. Dr. Lederberg is best known for her pioneering work in bacterial genetics. Her work led to the discovery of the lambda phage, a bacteriophage used to study gene expression and genetic recombination. Lederberg also developed the replica plating technique, allowing for the analysis of bacterial mutant viability, and tracking of antibiotic resistance.
Esther Lederberg (maiden name: Zimmer) was born in 1922 in the Bronx, New York. Growing up in a modest household during the Great Depression, Lederberg often ate a piece of bread with tomato juice for lunch. At a young age, she showed proficiency for schooling and earned a scholarship to attend Hunter College. Against the advice of her teachers, who were worried about a woman succeeding in the sciences, Lederberg decided to major in biochemistry and genetics. In 1942, she graduated cum laude and continued a path in genetics.
Following graduation from Hunter College, Lederberg worked as a research assistant at what is currently Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and did a fellowship at Stanford University. While at Stanford, Lederberg expanded her knowledge of genetics and eventually entered a master’s program. The year she completed her master’s degree, Esther married Joshua Lederberg. The couple moved first to Yale and then to the University of Wisconsin. Esther Lederberg first worked as an unpaid research associate in her husband’s lab at the University of Wisconsin but then pursued her doctorate degree where she studied genetic mutations in E. coli.
While doing her PhD in 1950, Lederberg first isolated lambda phage while working with mutagenized E. coli. She noticed stagnant and aberrant growth in different colonies of the bacteria E. coli K-12 after being exposed to ultraviolet light. Upon further examination, she discovered that this was due to a dormant virus that became active in some mutants. Lederberg further revealed that lambda phage was a unique virus. Instead of only multiplying inside the host like other viruses, lambda phage also integrated its DNA into the host resulting in new generations of bacteria with the virus. The virus remained dormant unless the bacterium was exposed to stress. Lambda phage is still utilized today to study genetic recombination and genetic engineering. Clinically, lambda phage is being explored as a treatment for bacterial infections as an alternative to antibiotics.
In 1951, Lederberg, in collaboration with her husband, invented the replica plating technique. To perform this technique, Lederberg took a plate with bacterial colonies and made an imprint of the colonies by pressing them onto sterile velvet. The velvet was then used to stamp the colonies onto other agar plates spiked with different added supplements. Therefore, bacterial colonies were replicated on different agar plates with the same spatial configuration. This allowed for a comparison of the effects of environmental change on bacterial health. Prior to this method, scientists had used toothpicks, paper, wire brushes, and multipronged inoculators to perform a similar but less effective technique. Lederberg used this technique to first show that bacteria spontaneously developed antibiotic resistance. Replica plating is still used today to study the effects of colony formation in response to the presence or absence of different antibiotics or nutrient supplements.
Although Lederberg was an outstanding scientist, she struggled to gain recognition or secure an academic position due to the discrimination against women scientists at the time. Her husband, however, became the head of genetics at Stanford University and he was mainly credited for the findings in lambda phage and the replica plating technique. In 1958, Joshua Lederberg won the Nobel Prize and Esther Lederberg was viewed as the wife of the Nobel laureate, as opposed to an independent scientist and collaborator. After complaining to the dean over the lack of women professors at Stanford, Lederberg was finally hired as an untenured associate professor, even though she was overqualified for the job. She was never offered a tenured position and had to fight to keep her job after she and Joshua Lederberg divorced. Even though Esther Lederberg made monumental contributions to bacterial genetics, she was excluded from writing a chapter in the book Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology and many textbooks often ignore her work and give credit to only her husband. Esther Lederberg was a phenomenal scientist who unfortunately did not receive the recognition that she deserved. However, her perseverance and inquisitive nature make her an iconic role model for all women in science.
Esther Lederberg, pioneer in genetics, dies at 83. (2006). Stanford University. https://news.stanford.edu/news/2006/november29/med-esther-112906.html
Iozzio, C., & Zeldovich, L. (2022, May 23). Esther Lederberg changed our understanding of how bacteria breed. Popular Science. https://www.popsci.com/health/esther-lederberg-profile/
Marks. (2015). Professor Esther Lederberg | Biographical summary. WhatisBiotechnology.Org. https://www.whatisbiotechnology.org/index.php/people/summary/Lederberg_Esther
Mayborn, T. (2021, December 10). Esther Lederberg: A Forgotten Genius - Young Spurs. Medium. https://medium.com/young-spurs/esther-lederberg-a-forgotten-genius-923f2ba1414f
Dr. Ben Barres
July, 2022 by Afrida Rahman-Enyart, PhD
“I lived life on my terms: I wanted to switch genders, and I did. I wanted to be a scientist, and I was. I wanted to study glia, and I did that too. I stood up for what I believed in and I like to think I made an impact, or at least opened the door for the impact to occur. I have zero regrets and I’m ready to die. I’ve truly had a great life.” – Dr. Ben Barres reflecting on his life after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
The “Scientist Spotlight” for this month features neurobiologist Dr. Ben A. Barres. Dr. Barres is best known for his work studying the interactions between glial cells and neurons, including his findings on glial-dependent synapse elimination and myelin formation. After transitioning to male in 1997, Barres also prominently spoke and wrote about sexism in the sciences.
Barres was born in 1954 in West Orange, New Jersey as Barbara A. Barres. Even though he was assigned female at birth, Barres knew at a very young age that he was a boy. While growing up, Barres was immediately drawn to and excelled at math and science. Barres would request to be placed in science and engineering courses at school but, being female, was continuously denied access. Eventually, Barres was able to enroll in a summer science program at Columbia University that had no gender restrictions. This program gave Barres the resources he needed to pursue a career in science.
Barres received his undergraduate degree in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). While at MIT, still as Barbara, Barres was continuously subjected to gender discrimination. In one instance, after solving a difficult math problem, Barres’ professor, not believing that Barres had outshone his male classmates, accused Barres of having his boyfriend solve the problem for him. Barres was also consistently at the top of his class but had difficulties securing a research supervisor. Nonetheless, he outperformed many of his peers and followed the path toward an MD at Dartmouth College. While doing his residency at Weill Cornell Medicine, Barres developed an interest in studying neurodegeneration and its correlation with aberrant glial cells. This topic interested him so much that he left his residency to pursue his PhD in neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. His graduate studies focused on the organization and function of cation channels in glial cells. After completing his PhD, Barres was a postdoctoral fellow at University College London where he discovered that developing neurons communicate with oligodendrocytes to myelinate neuronal axons.
In 1993, as Barbara, Barres started his own lab at Stanford University. Barres’ work ethic and mentorship have been described as “legendarily intense” by his colleague Dr. Andrew Huberman. Barres was known to have three-hour-long lab meetings and oftentimes worked 18–20-hour days. He provided great leadership for his students and postdocs, allowed them creative scientific freedom, and supported diverse collaborations. Barres viewed his lab as his family and was immensely devoted to his research. During his time at Stanford, the Barres Lab made several monumental discoveries, including understanding the roles of astrocytes and microglia in synapse elimination and studying signaling pathways that modulate neuronal survival, neuronal regeneration, and maintenance of the blood–brain barrier.
In 1997, Barres transitioned to male and started going by Ben. Therefore, many of his earlier publications were written under the name Barbara. In his book “The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist,” Barres recollects his experiences of gender discrimination prior to transitioning. For example, after giving his first seminar as Ben Barres at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, a scientist commented: “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but his work is much better than his sister’s.” Barres, in fact, did not have a sister in science and the commenter was referring to Barres’ work while he was Barbara. Barres noticed that after transitioning, people were not aware that he was transgendered, and he felt that he received more respect as a man than when he presented himself as a woman. Barres’ experiences pre- and post-transition motivated him to become an advocate for gender equality in the sciences. He frequently wrote and spoke about his experiences, even calling out an economist who claimed that women have lower levels of “intrinsic aptitude,” resulting in fewer women in science and engineering. Barres’ views on gender issues in the sciences were also featured in an article in The Wall Street Journal in 2006.
In 2008, Barres was appointed Chair of Neurobiology at Stanford University and in 2013 became the first openly transgender scientist in the National Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately, in April of 2016, Barres was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. His prognosis did not stop his devotion to his research, and even amidst treatment, he continued to write manuscripts, applications for grants, and even future letters of support for his students to use after his passing. In 2017 Barres passed away from pancreatic cancer. Prior to his death, Barres reflected that he had done everything in his life that he sought to do. Sure enough, Dr. Barres not only made a lasting impact in the field of neuroscience but also inspired an entire generation of neuroscientists.
Barres, B., & Hopkins, N. (2020). The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist (Mit Press). The MIT Press.
Begley, S. (2006, July 13). He, Once a She, Offers Own View On Science Spat. WSJ. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB115274744775305134
Does Gender Matter? by Ben A Barres | Learn Science at Scitable. (2006, July). Scitable by Nature Education. https://www.nature.com/scitable/content/does-gender-matter-by-ben-a-barres-10602856
Huberman, A. (2018, January 11). Ben Barres (1954–2017). Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-017-08964-1
Dr. Percy Lavon Julian
June, 2022 by Afrida Rahman-Enyart, PhD.
This month’s “Scientist Spotlight” features chemist Dr. Percy Lavon Julian. Julian is known for his seminal work in studying the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants. His work was the principle for the bulk production of sex hormones, cortisone, and other corticosteroids.
Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1899 and was the eldest of six children. His father worked as a post office clerk and his mother was a schoolteacher. Julian’s extended family had faced immense hardships in the past, including his paternal grandfather, who had been a slave.
During the early 1900s, high school education was extremely rare for African Americans. Although Julian did attend high school, the education and resources at his school were lacking. Consequently, Julian was accepted as a “sub-freshman” at DePauw University, taking both high school and freshman-level classes simultaneously. DePauw was quite segregated at the time and Julian was forbidden from living in the college dormitory. Instead, he stayed in a boarding home that refused to provide him with meals. He was eventually allowed to live in a fraternity house attic in exchange for doing odd jobs around the house. Yet despite his initial academic struggles and having suffered constant discrimination, Julian graduated in 1920 with a degree in chemistry and as the valedictorian of his class.
After being denied entrance into PhD programs, Julian went on to teach chemistry at Fisk University. After a few years, he was awarded an Austin Fellowship in Chemistry and was able to enroll in the organic chemistry master’s program at Harvard University. At Harvard, however, Julian was stripped of his teaching assistantship as university officials were worried that white students might react negatively to being taught by an African American instructor. After attending Harvard, Julian continued to teach at West Virginia State College and Howard University.
Julian eventually received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, which allowed him to pursue his PhD in chemistry at the University of Vienna. This transition from the USA to Austria would be pivotal for Julian’s career. While at the University of Vienna, Julian was able to participate in social gatherings, was accepted by his colleagues, and became one of the first African Americans to receive a PhD in chemistry.
After receiving his PhD, Julian returned to the US to teach first at Howard University and then at DePauw University. However, he was denied a professorship and consistently had issues securing employment for racial reasons. While at DePauw, Julian and his colleague Josef Pikl completed the first total synthesis of physostigmine, an alkaloid found in the Calabar bean and used to treat glaucoma. During this process, Julian noticed the steroid stigmasterol as a by-product of physostigmine synthesis. This discovery would be the catalyst for Julian’s groundbreaking work.
Around the time that Julian and Pikl were working on physostigmine, other researchers were seeking cheaper and more efficient ways to synthesize steroids, such as cortisone and sex hormones. At the time, only small quantities of sex hormones could be extracted from a large amount of animal spinal cords. It was discovered that stigmasterol could be used to synthesize sex hormones. In addition to being a product of the Calabar bean, stigmasterol was a product of soybean. Therefore, Julian reached out to the soybean oil company Glidden and requested several gallons of oil to initiate experiments for synthesizing human sex hormones. Interestingly, after Julian requested the soybean oil, the vice-president of the company hired him as the director of research in the Soya Division in Chicago, IL. There, Julian invented several soy-based products including Aero-Foam, which was utilized in World War II to put out oil and gas fires.
While conducting his research at Glidden, Julian made a serendipitous discovery when water mistakenly leaked into a container of soybean oil. He observed that the water led to the formation of a white mass in the oil and identified it as stigmasterol. Julian realized that he had just found a method for producing the large amounts of the steroid needed to synthesize progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone from soybeans. Julian’s patented technique was known as a “foam technique” and enabled the development of an industrial method to produce sex hormones on a large scale.
After Julian’s work in the bulk production of sex hormones, Mayo Clinic shared the discovery that cortisone had substantial benefits for rheumatoid arthritis. Upon learning this, Julian began to seek a way to synthesize large amounts of cortisone inexpensively. He was able to use the soy product pregnenolone and synthesize Substance S, which differed from cortisone by one oxygen atom. In 1953, Pfizer used Julian’s findings and developed a fermentation process to convert Substance S directly to hydrocortisone.
After his time at Glidden, Julian and his family moved to Oak Park, IL. They became the first African American family to live there. Although some of their neighbors welcomed the diversity, many others were quite upset. Julian’s family home was the target of firebombing and attacks with dynamite, which resulted in him guarding his property with a shotgun.
In 1954, Julian started his own company called Julian Laboratories and endeavored to hire all the top African American and women chemists. He also became an advocate of groups seeking to improve conditions for African Americans and was a founder of the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of Chicago.
Percy Lavon Julian grew up in a nation where he was constantly discriminated against, but his uplifting story shows us that no one could stop his love for science.
(2021, April 16). Percy Julian. Biography. https://www.biography.com/scientist/percy-julian
The Life of Percy Lavon Julian ’20. (2009). DePauw University. https://www.depauw.edu/news-media/latest-news/details/22969/
Percy Lavon Julian. (1999). American Chemical Society. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/julian.html
Percy Lavon Julian. (2020, October 15). Science History Institute. https://www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/percy-lavon-julian
Dr. Helen B. Taussig
May, 2022 by Afrida Rahman-Enyart, PhD.
This month’s “Scientist Spotlight” is on cardiologist Dr. Helen B. Taussig. Taussig is credited as the founder of the field of pediatric cardiology after her work on babies born with anoxemia, or “blue baby” syndrome. “Blue baby” syndrome is caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood, resulting in a blue tint to the baby’s skin. It can arise due to congenital heart defects or environmental factors. A severe congenital heart condition that causes “blue baby” syndrome is Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF), a defect consisting of four cardiac abnormalities. The pioneering work of Taussig and her colleagues resulted in a procedure that prolonged the lives of infants suffering from TOF, and a modified version is still used today. Taussig’s road to becoming a life-saving physician is inspirational for everyone, especially aspiring women in science.
Taussig was born in 1898 in Cambridge, Massachusetts and she quickly became familiar with adversity. As a child, Taussig suffered from an ear infection causing partial hearing loss, which later progressed, leaving her fully deaf as an adult. In addition, she struggled with severe dyslexia early on in her education. Taussig also contracted tuberculosis, the same ailment her mother succumbed to, and was ill for several years. Understandably, these hardships made her early school days difficult. However, with her father’s extensive tutoring and her innate determination to excel, Taussig did quite well in school. She went on to receive her undergraduate degree from the University of California-Berkeley.
Taussig’s challenging journey, however, did not end there. After receiving her BA, she aspired to go to Harvard Medical School. At that time, Harvard did not award degrees to women. Taussig had a similar experience when attempting to enroll at Boston University. She was allowed to attend biology courses with the understanding that she would not receive a degree and could not sit near or interact with her male classmates. Taussig eventually transferred to Johns Hopkins University where she was able to rightfully obtain her MD. She remained loyal to the university for the rest of her career and became the first woman at Johns Hopkins to hold a full professorship.
It was at Johns Hopkins where Taussig, Alfred Blalock, and Vivien Thomas developed the procedure that would help countless babies suffering from TOF. By this time, Taussig fully relied on hearing aids and lip-reading. She would use an amplified stethoscope or her hands to feel any discrepancies in the rhythm of infant heartbeats. Through observations of several types of heart defects in babies, Taussig realized that those suffering from TOF had a lack of blood flow to the lungs. These findings spearheaded the development of the Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt. The shunt connected the subclavian or carotid artery to the pulmonary artery, allowing for the blood to become oxygenated. Taussig and her colleagues tested the experimental procedure in dogs and then successfully in a handful of patients. The Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt is still often used in babies with TOF prior to performing more complex open-heart surgeries.
Later in her career, Taussig was a key leader in the campaign to ban FDA approval of thalidomide to treat morning sickness for pregnant women after it was linked to birth defects. As women’s rights became more prominent, Taussig’s work was recognized, and she received many honors for her accomplishments. In 1965, she became the first woman president of the American Heart Association. Taussig lived an inspirational life, fighting through every obstacle thrown her way, in order to save the lives of others. Click here to read more about Dr. Helen B. Taussig.
Forde, R. J. (n.d.). Helen Brooke Taussig. Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved April 15, 2022, from https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/taussig-helen-brooke
Goodman, G. L. (1983). A gentle heart: the life of Helen Taussig.
National Institutes of Health (2015, June 3). Changing the face of Medicine | Helen Brooke Taussig. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved April 15, 2022, from https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_316.html
Spindler, L. (2020, April 21). Helen B. Taussig, MD: A pioneer in the diagnosis and treatment of congenital heart disease. The Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation. Retrieved April 15, 2022, from https://www.wimlf.org/blog/helen-b-taussig-md
Dr. Har Gobind Khorana
April, 2022 by Afrida Rahman-Enyart, PhD.
In honor of DNA Day and the observed 100th birthday of the pioneering biochemist who uncovered the genetic code, our first “Scientist Spotlight” focuses on Dr. Har Gobind Khorana (image, left). In 1968, along with Marshall W. Nirenberg and Robert W. Holley, Khorana won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the groundbreaking discovery that connected DNA to protein synthesis.
However, Khorana’s arduous journey that led him to becoming a Nobel Prize-winning scientist makes his story even more inspiring. Khorana battled poverty at a young age, not even owning a pencil until age 6 and getting his initial years of schooling under a tree. Persevering through these hardships, Khorana went on to receive his PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Liverpool in 1948. Khorana eventually secured a fellowship at University of Cambridge where he used the chemical N,N’-Dicyclohexylcarbodiimide (DCC) to assemble and dissemble strings of amino acids and nucleotides. From there, Khorana established his own laboratory, first at the University of British Columbia and then moving to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Khorana continued utilizing DCC to synthesize DNA sequences and eventually introduced them to cellular elements which translated the DNA into amino acids and partial proteins. These findings were monumental as they gave rise to our understanding of codons and how the order of nucleotides controls protein synthesis. Khorana continued his research and eventually created the first synthetic gene.
Although Khorana’s work was groundbreaking, racism obstructed his recognition, and he was often neglected by authors and interviewers. Khorana also faced racial slurs against himself and his mixed-race family throughout his career and suffered from discrimination at work where he was paid less than his white colleagues. Khorana’s determination and dedication led him on a path to becoming one of the most influential biochemists, and it is finally time to celebrate all his achievements. Click here to read more about Dr. Har Gobind Khorana.
- Gobind Khorana – Biographical - NobelPrize.org. Retrieved April 11, 2022, from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1968/khorana/biographical/
- Sarkar, S. (2022, April 7). Remembering Har Gobind Khorana, the chemist who overcame poverty to win the nobel prize Retrieved April 11, 2022, from https://scroll.in/article/1021231/remembering-har-gobind-khorana-the-chemist-who-overcame-poverty-to-win-the-nobel-prize