“A lack of leading female scientists means a lack of role models”

Natalie Matosin from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich talks about the biochemist Rosalind Franklin

Her name is usually mentioned in connection with that of two others: Francis Crick and James Watson.

Rosalind Franklin is often by-passed, overlooked. In his book Double Helix, James Watson dismissively referred to her as “Rosy”. The two men, Francis Crick and James Watson, soared above her: in 1962, four years after Franklin's premature death at the age of 37, Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize along with Maurice Wilkins for their work on the molecular structure of DNA. Though Franklin had contributed significantly to the discovery, as the only women involved, her work was not acknowledged.

By the time she took the famous Photo 51, an image of DNA that guided Francis Crick and James Watson’s research, Franklin was already a renowned scientist. She had refined X-ray crystallography so precisely that she was able to capture the sharp image of life’s blueprint. Maurice Wilkins, Franklin’s colleague at King’s College London, showed the image and other unpublished files to James Watson and Francis Crick – without her knowledge.

Even if asked what her most important discovery was, Rosalind Franklin would never suggest this now legendary image of deoxyribonucleic acid – instead, she would point to her achievements in carbon research that contributed to improvements to gas mask technology in the Second World War, or the progress she made in virus research. She also went on to publish numerous articles on the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus during her time at Birkbeck College. Together with her colleague Aaron Klug, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry himself in 1982, she contributed to identifying the structure of the plant virus that afflicted not only tobacco, but also paprika and tomatoes.

Born July 25, 1920 in London, Rosalind Franklin was the daughter of a Jewish banking family who placed high value on the education of their two daughters and three sons. As a result, the girls received support from a very early stage. At 17, Rosalind Franklin passed the Cambridge entrance examination, gaining admission to the prestigious women-only Newnham College. However, though women could study there, they were unable to gain the same degrees as their male counterparts. Rosalind Franklin seized her opportunity and made a reputation for herself through her zeal and tenacity.

Following spells at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association in London, the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de L'Etat in Paris, where she specialized in X-ray crystallography, and at King’s College and Birkbeck College in London, Rosalind Franklin died at a very young age from ovarian cancer in April 1958 – probably as a result of prolonged exposure to X-rays.

In their Nobel Prize speech, given four years after Franklin’s death, Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins failed to mention Franklin at all. The same was not true for Aaron Klug. She had been his role model, he said, and he expressed his belief that she would also have been awarded the Nobel Prize, if only she had lived long enough and been able to continue her research.

Dr. Matosin, what made you become a scientist?

My father inspired me to be a scientist. He has a deep love of animals and the environment. We were always in the outdoors and watched a lot of documentaries. His enthusiasm was contagious, and I grew curious of the world and how things worked.

What is it about Rosalind Franklin that fascinates you? Are there any aspects of her life or work that strike you as particularly remarkable?

Franklin was also inspired to be a scientist by her father. However her father did not support her career. Franklin fascinates me because she was so strong and sure that she wanted to be a scientist in spite of her father and during a time when it was extremely difficult for women to have a career in science. She persevered and made some of the most important discoveries in scientific history.

What characterized the prevailing gender roles in Rosalind Franklin’s time?

In those days, female scientists found it extremely difficult to assert themselves in the scientific sphere. Access to education was limited, and progression in academia was near impossible. Their contributions often went unrecognized – or were even claimed by other scientists under their own name.

As a woman conducting research in the 1950s, Franklin was marginalized within the scientific community; not to mention the lower wages she was afforded.

The results of her research were used without her consent, and her scientific contributions failed to receive the appreciation they were due.

How important were Rosalind Franklin’s contributions for chemistry, crystallography and virus research? 

Franklin’s by now iconic ‘Photograph 51’ is probably her most well-known contribution to research: it was allegedly circulated without her approval and later used by Watson and Crick to develop the DNA model without recognizing Franklin’s input.

Franklin was already a highly skilled X-ray crystallographer by the time her Director at King’s College London instructed her to conduct research into DNA in the college laboratories. She made other important discoveries that were crucial in shaping crystallography and virology as fields of research.

It’s clear that a great deal has improved for women in science since the 1950s. From your point of view, what exactly has changed?

In my opinion, the most obvious change from the 1950s is certainly the fact that women today endure less sexism. This is in large part down to the feminist movement that began in the 1960s: it raised public awareness of the topic and initiated discussions into how both men and women could do more to identify and tackle sexism.

At the same time, discussion groups at scientific institutions have afforded women the space to support one another and develop ideas for how working conditions can be made more secure for women. Today, institutions themselves are also far more mindful of gender equality measures that target equal representation for men and women. The majority of scholarship and funding programmes now also accept childcare leave periods as valid career interruptions.

However, unconscious gender discrimination remains an insidious problem that represents a considerable disadvantage for women in science.

Despite a series of positive developments, the number of women active in STEM subjects remains lower than that of men. What do you see as the causes of this discrepancy?

Though there are more female scientists today, this fact is not reflected in the number of women we see leading departments or research projects. In fact, this problem is a vicious circle: a lack of leading female scientists means a lack of role models. You don’t aspire to be something you can’t already see. As a result, young women find it very difficult to believe that a successful career in science is a long-term possibility.

Despite some progress, women scientists are still paid less and promoted less frequently, receive less research funding and are more likely to leave the field of research than similarly qualified men. They aren’t asked their opinion, invited to give talks or recognized as “experts” as often as men. And, for women in science, it’s still not at all unusual to be the only woman in a room.  

To your mind, what needs to happen to attract more women to STEM subjects and, in turn, for more women to pursue and remain in STEM careers?

When it comes to solving the issue of under-representation of women in science networking and events are not enough. We also need to tackle the structural problems of a working world that exists within a framework of systems that reinforce inequality and make it hard for women to remain in science.

Surveys have shown that the most dramatic drop of women active in science can be seen in the postdoc phase. Introducing living wages and paid parental leave for postdocs, for example, would help to make raising children a more gender-equitable process. Other factors include subsidized childcare, allowing mothers to breastfeed in scientific institutions, as well as grants and funding that take maternity leave into account.

I believe that in terms of the issue of equitable gender representation in science, women should be even bolder in holding their institutions to account – such as by publishing statistics on drop-out rates for each individual phase of scientific education, recruitment, and promotion. Such tangible measures, which support women in pursuing their professional goals, would result in an improved gender balance at all levels and a higher proportion of women in leading positions which would, in turn, inspire girls to opt for a STEM subject.

Do you think mentoring programmes are useful?

Mentor programs are extremely useful for guiding young girls and women who are interested in science, and would otherwise fall off the track due to the challenges that they face. Programs like the New York Academy of Sciences 1000 girls 1000 Futures (a mentoring program for girls between 15 and 18 years around the world to be mentored by a real female scientist) and the Max Planck’s Minerva-FemmeNet are fantastic.

What role models do you see for women in science?

Now with the science community on twitter and Instagram, it is much easier to find every-day female scientist role models. We need to continue to share these sources until women scientists are also household names. A fantastic instagram account that features women in stem is @nina.draws.scientists – “illustrations of trailblazing scientists (that happen to be women)”

What advice would you give young women considering science as a career path?

A woman’s place is in science. You’re wanted, you’re needed, and you’re valuable.


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