Lab culture and DNA

When scientists make path-breaking inventions or find radically new ways of looking at the world, the credit often goes to them, as individuals. But this attempt to glorify the individual also neglects the conditions in which this research is carried out–usually within the walls of an institution and often under the supervision of a senior professor or department head or chair. These unseen support systems contribute a great deal towards the success of a project. Of course, the reverse is also true.

I recently read Brenda Maddox’s book on Rosalind Franklin, who has been the subject of a fair amount of interest from the point of view of women in scientific fields. Famously, it was her X-ray photograph of DNA that gave important evidence about the structure of the DNA molecule. Her colleague Wilkins was named for the Nobel prize but she (and her PhD student Gosling) were ignored. In the long history of oversights by the Nobel prize committee, this one has angered many people and has since been discussed and written about widely.

Maddox’s book highlights the role of the lab in King’s College London, where the infamous photograph was taken. Franklin was recruited into the lab by J.T Randall, a senior ‘star’ professor who had a reputation for attracting brilliant minds. Randall, according to Maddox had one failing–once all these brilliant people came together, he did nothing at all to manage them. This lead to the falling-out between Franklin and Wilkins, both of whom thought that X-ray work on DNA was supposed to be their own research problem. Each began to work in isolation and eventually, though King’s College had invested the most money in the project and had all the experimental evidence, the Nobel was shared between Watson, Crick and Wilkins.

Not only that, but the atmosphere at King’s College in the early 1950s was unfriendly towards a serious scientist such as Franklin. It was Anglican (with a chapel on campus) and a large theological department, which may have made her (Jewish) uncomfortable. There was one common dining hall for men and women, but another existed for men only. Not only that, there were few who appreciated her past research (in a different field) and this likely made the work culture harder to negotiate. Perhaps this contributed to her defensive behaviour and her need to draw boundaries around her research work.

It makes one wonder whether a few interventions to reconcile Wilkins and Franklin could’ve changed history. They were, after all, very very close to the discovery, but unable to make that final daring leap that was able to explain their data. And what if the personalities of these two researchers in King’s College were not so quick to take offense, would things have gone differently? It’s hard to tell, but sometimes it does seem that these intangibles affect the final outcome in ways an outsider can never understand.

To what extent are institutions and the work culture in labs responsible for scientific discoveries? I am sure that they contribute in big and small ways, and these prizes for discoveries perhaps really belong to more people than just one or two. It is similar to the Oscars in some way. The actors, actresses and directors are glamorous and get much of the credit, but none of it is possible without a very large supporting cast of actors and other technicians. It’s more true than ever that these scientific hero stories are just that, stories and myths. The history of science shows that the journey into the discovery is far more complicated.