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The unsung heroes of science

Two oft-overlooked stories of women scientists helped inspire me
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MARGARET ATKINSON/THE VARSITY
MARGARET ATKINSON/THE VARSITY

The history of science is usually recounted as a history of genius white men, often portrayed as brave intellectuals who resisted the dominant ideas of their time to advance powerful new insights. 

For example, in the past, whenever I thought of science, Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein immediately surged through my mind. I easily thought of people like James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins, who were awarded the Nobel Prize after developing a model of DNA’s double helix. And the moon landing is almost synonymous with Neil Armstrong.

However, as I later learned, it was actually Rosalind Franklin who contributed to unravelling — no pun intended — the structure we know today as the DNA double helix. And Katherine Johnson, a mathematician, calculated the flight path for the first American spaceflight and the first moon landing. The stories of these two women demonstrate that the history of science most certainly isn’t just the history of genius white men, and they helped me regain my love for learning.

Encountering my first barrier 

When I was very young, I thought that the only barrier I would face to achieving what I wanted was myself. I was driven and curious to learn anything, including math and science. 

But as I entered grade four, I was presented with many more challenges than just math problems. I started to think that I did not have the intellectual abilities to pursue my ambitions. I believed there was a biological barrier, one that could not be overcome. I felt like I had to put in more effort to prove that I was capable.

It wasn’t until I was exposed to the contributions of Johnson, who was a NASA mathematician and Black woman who calculated the trajectory for the Apollo 11 lunar mission and the mission that sent the first American to space, that I began to believe in my own potential. 

At the time, computers calculated the orbital trajectories for space missions from liftoff to splashdown, but astronauts were reluctant to put their lives at risk because of calculations from machines that were prone to errors. 

So, in 1961, Johnson calculated the trajectory for Freedom 7, allowing the first US astronaut, Alan B. Shepard, to go to space. In 1962, as NASA prepared the orbital mission for John Glenn — the first US astronaut to orbit Earth — Glenn called upon Johnson to run the same calculations as a preflight checklist. Johnson recalls him saying, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s successful flight served as a turning point in the competition between the US and the Soviet Union. 

Johnson had a great love for mathematics and counting from her childhood: “I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed… anything that could be counted, I did.” 

Unravelling DNA’s unsung hero

Franklin, a chemist, used a technique called X-ray crystallography to get the first real image of the DNA structure, referred to as ‘Photo 51.’ Photo 51 changed the world and our understanding of the DNA structure. 

Maurice Wilkins, who worked with Franklin, showed some of her unpublished work — including Photo 51 — to Watson. Her work helped Crick and Watson visualize and develop a model of the DNA double helix, but her contributions were largely uncredited at that time. When it was time to award a Nobel Prize for the discovery a few years after her death in 1958, her name wasn’t mentioned.

Franklin was a brilliant scientist at the top of her field. She published consistently throughout her career, and even worked on revealing the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus. She helped expand our understanding of the structure of the polio virus and its implications on human disease. She travelled to conferences around the world to talk about coal and virus structure.

In 1968, 10 years after Franklin’s death, Watson published a memoir titled The Double Helix. He represented Franklin as a bad-tempered, arrogant person who kept data from her colleagues. Consequently, Franklin’s friend Anne Sayre wrote a biography as a rebuttal, highlighting Franklin’s contributions and making her discovery more well-known. It was only years after Franklin’s death that Crick finally acknowledged that her contributions were critical for the development of their model. 

After her death, the polio crystal structure was published in the scientific journal Nature by her colleagues John Finch and Aaron Klug, dedicated to her memory. Had she lived, the Nobel Prize which was awarded to Klug in 1982 might also have been awarded to her. 

Franklin and Johnson’s perseverance

Franklin did not have it easy. Before Photo 51 was published in Nature, she was instructed by her supervisor in a letter to stop thinking about and working on unpacking the DNA structure. She would later go on to lead her team to decode the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus. 

Despite the resistance she continued to receive throughout her life, she did not let gender disparities or discrimination overcome her drive to learn. Her perseverance led to our current understanding of the structure of DNA and viruses, which have had crucial applications in healthcare. Her work was cut short her an early death after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. 

Similarly, when Johnson participated in the space program, she asked for permission to be a part of the briefings. When she was told, “the girls don’t usually go,” she responded, “is there a law [against it]?” She continued to attend briefings, which eventually led her to work on aerospace trajectories. She died in 2020 at the age of 101. 

Both Franklin and Johnson defined perseverance by taking ownership of their positions.

Regaining my drive to learn

Little did I know that I would come to enjoy calculus and solving problems. I owe my understanding and love for learning calculus to my high school teacher, a woman from Nigeria who I don’t think got enough credit from the school. I also enjoy learning life sciences, and I’m grateful to be a student at the University of Toronto where we are not only expected to apply what we’ve learned beyond the class, but are encouraged to do so. Being in university has only increased my curiosity and love for learning.

Now, my drive to learn and contribute is so much greater than my fear of not being good or smart enough. For every Watson and Crick, there’s a Rosalind Franklin. And behind many great achievements in science, there’s a Katherine Johnson. 

As Johnson said, “You lose your curiosity when you stop learning.”