Rosalind Franklin: The impact she left on young women in science

Jaci Fleming
March 14, 2024
Young woman scientist looking through a microscope in a laboratory doing chemical research, microbiological analysis, test. Biochemical science laboratory staff performing experiments.
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“Really great work,” said the man as he reached across me and shook the hand of my lab partner, Patrick. Patrick gave me an apologetic look as he accepted the man's hand in dismay.

I stood there as the man discussed the research findings of Patrick and I’s year-long research project – a project that the two of us worked on together, splitting the work equally, in order to present our findings at the College of Charleston Expo that is held every Spring.

There isn’t a playbook available for how one should react in this situation. I certainly wasn’t going to call him out on his mistake. But I also knew that I didn’t like how dismissive he was of me and the work that I helped conduct.

Before I knew it the man had walked away. Patrick turned to me immediately and said, “Really weird of that guy to shake my hand and not yours. I’m sorry.”

Situations like this are common in the workforce, especially in the field of science and technology, so I said, “Don’t worry about it! It was harmless.”

Except looking back now, I realize I was wrong. The dismissal of women, of their passions and the results of their hard work can be incredibly harmful.

Take the story of Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who published Photograph 51 which corroborated the double helical model of DNA in 1953. As a physical chemist, Franklin worked tirelessly to prove the structure of DNA through mathematical computations and over 100 hours of photographic exposure to render a crystal image. Even though this image was integral to proving James Watson and Francis Crick’s proposed model, Franklin was not acknowledged in the published paper. Watson and Crick went on to receive a Nobel Prize for their discovery, and Franklin’s contribution went largely unrecognized for almost 50 years after Watson and Crick’s publication. 

"When women are excluded from conversations and fail to be recognized for our successes, we are indirectly being conditioned to contribute less."

-- Jaci Fleming

It's important to disseminate the real story from the rumorous ‘lore’ that has circulated in the scientific community while also crediting Franklin for being the incredible scientist that she was. She didn’t let these challenges stop her from pursuing her passion for science.

Franklin clearly differentiated between the A and B forms of DNA, a problem that had perplexed researchers in the past. She also used basic principles of science at the time to infer that DNA played a role in specifying proteins. Outside of her work with DNA, Franklin used her expertise to reveal structures of carbons which aided in the development of industrial heat-resistant materials and worked to decode the structure of tobacco mosaic virus.

Her resiliency and ability to continue her pursuit of new discoveries is inspiring for young scientists today, especially young women like myself.

My experience at the poster session is just a small example of what women in science can experience. When women are excluded from conversations and fail to be recognized for our successes, we are indirectly being conditioned to contribute less. This constriction of ideas inhibits scientific progress and should be discouraged no matter the gender identity of a scientist. Science is built on collaboration and mutual respect, both of which cannot be achieved in an environment where sexism is tolerated.

While I found this experience to be frustrating, it was also eye-opening. As I begin to find my voice as a researcher I realize that it's okay to make myself known and to take up space. The old me had the habit of making myself smaller and quieter to seem “more approachable”. I was doing myself a disservice by doing this, though. When you don’t contribute to the conversation happening around you, you find yourself missing out on amazing opportunities. Opportunities that may open a door to something bigger.

Women in STEM have made incredible strides and used such opportunities to their advantage despite the challenges that they face today. The presence of women in the STEM workforce has grown exponentially since the era of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin was a part of the 11% of women that worked in the STEM workforce in the 1950s. In the year 2024, the National Girls Collaborative Project reports that women will make up about 35% of the STEM workforce. Not only has the workforce more than doubled in the past 70 years, but there are many ongoing efforts being made to spread awareness and improve the world in which science is conducted.

There are several national organizations that promote women in STEM. One group, the American Association of University Women (AAUW), works towards achieving equal pay, preventing sexual harassment in the workplace, career advancement and supporting women at any point in their academic/professional careers. Another group, the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), works towards similar goals and focuses on advocating for the recognition of female scientists’ achievements and empowering women to pursue and obtain leadership roles.

While there is still much work to be done to change the rigid attitudes that society has towards its women, tremendous progress has been made since Rosalind Franklin obtained the first crystal image of DNA in 1953. Role models like her have paved the way for young scientists like me, and hopefully for many others.