By Alisha Ward
Why is it that whenever you ask anyone to name a famous scientist they are almost always men? You get answers like Einstein, Newton, Darwin, etc. If you ask specifically for female scientists people will usually know Marie Curie along with maybe Rosalind Franklin or Ada Lovelace, but they’re unlikely to be able to name any more than that. Seriously, there must have been way more than three female scientists. How is it that those are the only names we know? It certainly wasn’t because women weren’t pursuing science, in fact there were quite a few notable women in scientific fields long before it was “socially acceptable” for women to be scientists. It was mostly due to women being actively unwritten from science contributions. Their work was overlooked, underfunded, and in many cases even claimed as the product of another (always male) scientist.
Let’s consider Rosalind Franklin. You may remember her from a small footnote in your science textbook when it was discussing the work of Watson and Crick, and their discovery of the double helix shape of DNA. The textbook probably told you that unfortunately Franklin had died prior to the Nobel Prize being awarded and was therefore not recognized. What the textbooks won’t tell you is that she wasn’t even working in the same lab as Watson and Crick. In fact, she had not shared her work with them at all. A colleague in her lab took both the image she had formed of a DNA double helix as well as some of her notes with her conclusions and showed them to Watson and Crick. This allowed the two now credited with the discovery to amend their own conclusions (which were based on some very incorrect assumptions) and declare they had discovered the structure of DNA. They were published in the Journal Nature without ever mentioning Franklin’s name, and her contribution was only noted after publishing. Franklin having her work used without her consent, and her accomplishments downplayed is unfortunately not an isolated incident.
Let’s fast forward to the present where CRISPR-Cas9 has recently been discovered to be a breakthrough in gene editing. The work was done in multiple labs but we will focus on two; the U of C Berkeley lab headed by Jennifer Doudna, and the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard. Dr. Eric Lander and the Broad Institute wrote an article, published in the journal Cell outlining the discovery of CRISPR. Doudna and her colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier are currently in legal battles with Lander over this article inaccurately portraying their contributions. They are mentioned only in passing. Now it seems quite suspicious to me that the lab with significant contributions by two women would be the one to be downplayed in the formal publications. It sounds like history is repeating itself.
I find it hard to be surprised that things like this are still occurring in today’s scientific community given that science evolved in an environment populated almost exclusively by white, middle-upper class men. This homogenized population resulted in a bias that influenced, and continues to influence, the modern culture of science. The good news is that science teaches us to be critical, to ask questions, to change our minds if the data suggest something other than our initial hypothesis to be true. I believe that we can use science to examine the biases within the scientific community and continue to change the culture so that no woman will need to fight legal battles to guarantee that her name be put on the work she produced.
Alisha studies Biology and Gender Studies at Simon Fraser University. She is currently one of the directors at Science AL!VE, an undergraduate run, not-for-profit science education organization at SFU.
- 52 women Who Changed Science – and the World by Rachel Swaby