AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Tag: #womeninSTEM

Rosalind Franklin “Dark Lady of DNA”

A force to be reckoned with, Rosalind Franklin is described as brilliant and stubborn but also referred to as the “Dark Lady of DNA”. Franklin’s foundation began in Cambridge University where she studied both chemistry and physics. Following that Franklin began working at the British Coal Utilization Research Association where her work became centralized around the prosperity of coal which became her Ph.D. thesis. In 1946, Franklin was finally able to move to Paris to perfect a practice known as x-ray crystallography which later became her life’s work. Franklin started work with a man known as Maurice Wilkins on finding the structure of DNA.

Unfortunately, their clashing personalities took a toll on their professional relationship. This conflict led to the two of them working in relative isolation. While working in isolation suited Franklin, Wilkins went searching for new partners and ended up working at a laboratory in Cambridge with his friend Francis Crick who was working with James Watson on building the model of DNA. Unbeknownst to Franklin, Watson and Crick viewed her unpublished work including “photo 51” shown to Watson by Wilkins. This x-ray diffraction picture of a DNA molecule served as Watson’s inspiration.

Combining Franklin’s photograph with their own data is what allowed Watson and Crick to make their famous model of DNA. Franklin was left with no credit, and it was not until her death that Crick confessed that her work had been critical to the discovery. On a more positive note, Franklin spent her last years in her science prime. She moved to Birkbeck College where she started working on the tobacco mosaic virus. During these years she completed some of the best, most important work of her life and ended up traveling the world to discuss her work and the structure of viruses. Heartbreakingly, just as she reached the peak in her career, she died of ovarian cancer at age 37, accomplishing more in her short life than many renowned male scientists.

Franklin was left to face countless challenges and discouragements in her lifetime . When working at a lab at King’s College in London, Franklin was expected to work with antiquated equipment in the basement of the building. Being the boss she is, Franklin took charge of her lab with her customary efficiency and directed a graduate student in marked the refinements that the x-ray equipment needed. As if this was not trouble enough, Franklin was expected to stop her work every day and leave the building to get lunch. Because she was a girl, Franklin could not eat in the College cafeteria.

With all of these odds working against her, Franklin was able to make progress in studying DNA. However, her real obstacle was Maurice Wilkins. Wilkins was outraged and learned that his female “assistant” whom he expected to be working for him was actually a formidable scientist. This tension causes the two scientist to work independently. When Franklin died in 1898 of ovarian cancer, likely caused by her constant exposure to radiation, she was no longer eligible for the Nobel peace prize.

The Nobel prize can only be shared amongst three living scientists and when it was won by Watson, Crick and Wilson in 1962, Franklins work was barely mentioned. When “The Double Helix” was written in 1968, Franklin was made out to be a villain and Watson describes her as a “belligerent, emotional woman unable to interpret her own data.”

Franklin’s research and presence has only been acknowledged in the past decade. Now, there “are many new facilities, scholarships and research grants especially those for women, being named in her honor.” Franklin was a role model. Her father wanted to be a scientist but World War One cut short his education. Franklin always wanted to be a scientist. She faced it all. Her own father discouraged her because he thought it was unfit that a girl should be in such a field. 

Franklin took one of the first steps so that so many women could pursue their dreams in science. I have always wanted to be a scientist and have even faced challenges myself because I am a female. Rosalind Franklin is a role model for me and if I can turn out to be a fraction of the scientist she was, I will be happy. 


Dr. Apryl Pooley: The Incredible Neuroscientist, Activist, and Survivor Illuminating Sex Differences in PTSD Symptoms

“Trauma#neuroscientist,#author, artist, social justice activist, mental health advocate, unionizer, survivor/recover-er/contender of rape/addiction/#PTSD” This is the Twitter bio of Dr. Apryl Pooley, a neuroscientist who is studying sex differences in traumatic stress response using sperm producing and egg producing Sprauge-Dawley rats. Through her work, she came to the discovery that “trauma has divergent sex-specific effects at the behavioral, physiological, and cellular levels,” an idea that hasn’t been explored in modern neurobiology. 

A visual of the release of ACTH in response to a stressor

Dr. Pooley and her research team utilized two known identifiers of PTSD-like response in rats to monitor these differences between the males and females. One was the acoustic startle response (ASR), an involuntary contraction in the facial and skeletal muscles “to a sudden and intense startling stimulus,” and the other was the dexamethasone suppression test (DST), a test used to examine adrenal gland function after the administration of dexamethasone, a steroid that “provides negative feedback to the pituitary gland to suppress the secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH),” which is released in copious amounts in the presence of a biological stressor. In PTSD patients, enhanced ACTH suppression is consistently found after this test is performed, since the patient responds to the negative feedback loop which quells the excessive release of ACTH. While the male rats demonstrated a high startle response and this expected negative feedback control in the pituitary and adrenal glands, the female rats showed symptoms more common to depression in response to the stressor. This contrast lead to Pooley’s conclusion that the “trauma response of male and female rats is fundamentally different,” and that it is important to understand these differences to pave “the way for improved diagnostics and therapeutics that effectively treat both men and women.”

Her interest in trauma and PTSD, especially her “goal of determining how a traumatic event affects people differently,” stems from her personal experiences and struggles. While she was researching Parkinson’s disease in her doctoral training at MSU, she came across studies of PTSD symptoms and realized that is what she had been coping with her entire life after being raped as a teenager. She “didn’t know that rape could cause PTSD,” and became dedicated to helping others learn about the devestating effects and causes of traumatic stress response. She also struggled with an alcohol addiction to cope with her trauma and eventually sought help from counselors and psychiatrists. During her journey of recovery from alcoholism, she wrote a book about her experiences titled Shadow Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Journey through PTSD and Womanhood and changed her Ph.D. research to looking at PTSD, with a concentration on how symptoms present in women. 

Dr. Pooley is an inspiring scientist, activist, and survivor that is making history with ground breaking research in behavioral science. She is “excited” to continue finding “biological evidence for why men with PTSD tend to show signs of aggression and anger and women with PTSD tend to show signs of anxiety and depression” and shedding light on how behavioral health disorders and trauma affect women, a topic underrepresented in current scientific research. She especially hopes that her work leads to the development of increasingly effective treatment resources for sexual assault survivors, women, and LGTBQ+ people who have experienced trauma or struggle with PTSD. How do you think we can amplify the voices of female scientists studying behavioral health and trauma like Dr. Pooley? How do you think her work is changing the portrayal of behavioral and mental health in the scientific community? 

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