As part of Scientific American's ongoing series of articles on Westinghouse (now Intel) Science Fair finalists, they profile Jane Richardson, who was a finalist in 1958. Richardson was fascinated by astronomy, and she and her friends recorded the position of Sputnik, which allowed her to calculate the orbit of the Soviet satellite.
Despite the success of her science fair project project, she didn't take a direct path to becoming a scientist. She started out studying mathematics, physics and astronomy at Swarthmore College, but switched her major to philosophy with a physics minor. She then went to graduate school in philosophy at Harvard, but found that their emphasis was modern philosophy, rather than the classical philosophy she was interested in. That brought her back to science.
Meanwhile, Richardson explains, she had enrolled in "several excellent courses in plant taxonomy and evolution in the Harvard botany department, [which was] very gracious to an interested outsider. I then tried high school teaching, which didn't work because when I concentrated on something I became completely oblivious to anything else. Then I joined, as a technician, the chemistry lab at MIT where my husband, David, was working on a PhD."Her husband was working on the 3-dimensional crystal structures of proteins. She also became fascinated with the 3D molecular structures, and was inspired to develop a way of depicting them as "ribbon drawings". But it wasn't easy. She spent two years developing her "taxonomy of protein structure". The resulting diagrams were not only were visually appealing, but also made the structures more understandable.
In fact, aside from appearing on the covers of numerous journals, the "Richardson diagrams" broke open the study of these complex molecules. "Jane and David's work allowed us to reveal the form of proteins, and from there it was easier to understand their function," 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry co-winner Peter Agre recently told Duke Research, a university publication.Her careful observations of protein structure allowed her to formulate general rules for protein structure and lead to proposed mechanisms of protein folding.
Jane and her husband David moved to Duke university in 1970, where both are currently professors in the Department of Biochemistry. In 1985 she received a MacArthur Fellowship, was made a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1991 and in 2006 was elected to the National Institute of Medicine, despite never having earned a Ph.D or M.D..
She told the Biological Physicist:
"I think," she says, "that you can be intensely ambitious in science on very non-establishment terms that have nothing at all to do with running your own lab, with getting tenure and lots of grant money, or even with getting explicit recognition for your ideas. The first big reward is the excitement of attaining a new insight, independent of whether it is shared with anyone else. But if later work proves you right and if everyone else eventually ends up adopting and using your ideas, then that is success, and it can in some ways add to the fun if they don't always realize who started it. I want immortality from both my biological and my intellectual children, but I don't think they would be as much worth procreating and nurturing if they were always busy thinking of me as their source."I think it's pretty amazing that Richardson took such a non-traditional path to scientific success. However, I can't help but think that she had a luxury that most scientists do not: a husband who is a successful scientist himself, and who was willing to share his research results - and later space and grant money - with his wife.
- Ribbon Diagrams: They Turned Messy Data Into Beautiful Pictures
- Ribbon Diagrams and Protein Taxonomy: A Profile of Jane S. Richardon, The Biological Physicist 4(3):5 (2004) (pdf)
- Women in Chemistry: Jane Richardson
• Mary-Dell Chilton
Image - bottom: Duke Research
Image - top: Scientific American
Tags: Jane Richardson, biochemistry, Westinghouse Science Talent Search