An Interview with Prof Nina Wedell

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Animals behave in ways that sometimes seem strange to us humans. But, fundamentally, everything they do is driven by survival and reproduction. They need to eat to stay alive, and they need to reproduce to ensure their line (and genetic information) survives once they are gone.

“Why do animals behave the way they do?” is the question that got Nina Wedell interested in science and now she is a top professor at the University of Exeter studying the evolutionary ecology of sex and selfish genetic elements. Reproduction is essential for all species, but there are many differences in sexual behaviour between different animals. Prof Wedell has looked at the genetic basis for these differences. In fruit flies, for example, she has shown that female promiscuity can actually prevent population extinction caused by a male-killing selfish gene found in these insects.

I spoke to Prof Wedell to find out more about her work on selfish genes and to get some insights and advice from a successful woman in science.

LabcoatLucy (LL): Let’s start off with the science! What is your most interesting discovery?

Prof Nina Wedell (NW): One of my favourites is an early finding which settled a long-standing mystery. In most species of butterfly and moth, the male produces two types of sperm: normal sperm and copious amounts of blank sperm with no genetic information in it. This blank sperm seemed to have no evolutionary value, or even to be detrimental to fertilisation. However, most insects can store sperm – to give an extreme example, bees and ants might store sperm for 30 years! I studied the green-veined white butterfly and found that the male butterflies produce all this extra dud sperm to fill up the female’s sperm storage tank. This tricks her into thinking she has a full sperm supply and so she doesn’t re-mate with other males. So, the dud sperm helps to ensure that it his good sperm fertilises the female, rather than another butterfly’s sperm. There is an evolutionary advantage!

LL: So, what are you working on now?

NW: Nowadays, I work on selfish genes that are present in all organisms, including humans. They violate equal inheritance: the selfish genes are more frequently inherited than other genes. Most scientists just ignore them and think of them as junk DNA with no real purpose, but how they persist and spread is fascinating. We use fruit flies (Drosophila) to study these selfish genetic elements. You can breed fruit flies rapidly and then follow changes over many generations.

But genes are not straightforward! ‘DTT resistance’ is a nice example of this… Some fruit flies carry a variant of a gene that makes them resistant to DTT, which is great for the fly. And in females it also makes them produce more eggs, so it’s a great gene to have. In contrast, males who have the DTT resistance suffer, they have lower mating success than those without the resistance gene. We call these genes sexually antagonistic: good for one sex, bad for the other. Looking at how this type of gene is inherited down the generations is very interesting!

LL: What is the biggest unsolved problem in your field?

NW: The link between genotype (genetic makeup) and phenotype (observable characteristics such as height and eye colour). For example, with height there is an interaction between different genes in the individual that determines height, but we don’t know how that works. To go back to fruit flies with the DTT resistance gene, there are clearly gene-gene interactions that differ in males and females.

LL: What first got you interested in science?

NW: As a child I was always intrigued by natural history. At the age of 4, I wanted to be a lion tamer. When I was a little older, I wanted to be an author and explorer. And now, as a scientist, that’s what I am! Science is exploration. I ask questions, discover the answers and then write about it! And I get to travel all over the world. I actually had a background in humanities up until the age of 18. As an adult I went back to study science as I realised that it was more than just an interest, but something I wanted to spend my life doing.

LL: So do you think your background in humanities set you up well to be a scientist?

NW: Yes! In science you have to come up with a precise hypothesis to test. The humanities taught me to be creative and articulate, which is essential for this. Clear thinking and good communication skills are vital in science, I would say more important than being clever. Very few scientists are real savants or geniuses, for the rest of us science is about slogging, being creative, taking intellectual risks, discussing our ideas with other people and not being too afraid or intimidated to consider a new idea. The humanities gave me a good start in those things. But maybe a science background would have given me the same, there was no control experiment!

LL: Of what achievements are you most proud?

NW: Well, apart from teaching… one of the things I am most proud of is a natural history discovery, rather than an evolutionary biology one. I found a brand new species in Australia, and it was actually named after me!

LL: That’s cool! Interesting that you say “apart from teaching”, so teaching is important to you?

NW: I get such joy from teaching! That moment when you watch the penny drop is brilliant. Nothing is so rewarding as teaching. A colleague once gave me some advice, “Everyone complains about teaching, but just embrace it.” And that was a game changer. If you decide that teaching is encroaching on your research, then you will just resent it. I call it positive self-deception: look on it positively and you’ll enjoy it.

LL: So, what advice would you pass on to younger researchers?

NW:

  1. Try not to worry.
  2. Be in it for the long haul, there are no quick fixes in science.
  3. Do something that you find exciting. If you do something just because it’s trendy (i.e. other people find it exciting), you won’t enjoy it so much and there will be so much competition that a better financed lab will probably beat you to it.
  4. Believe in yourself.
  5. Ask for advice. Now, as a professor, I want to do what I can to help younger scientists, but it is virtually impossible to help you if I don’t know what you need. And getting advice gives you a network.

LL: Ah, you mention “networking”, a word many PhD students don’t quite understand and a great many fear! Do have any networking advice?

NW: Well, as a supervisor I feel that it is my duty to introduce members of my lab to other researchers as it is a crucial part of science. I’d say, start with your peers, you can share experiences with them and grow up in science with them.

Before a conference, target one individual: send an email beforehand telling them that you have a poster or are giving a talk and invite them to talk to you. One really rewarding interaction is better than ten rubbish ones. Also, do your homework, find out who is going to be there that might be interested in your work. People worry that networking is too much like self-promotion, but networking is fundamentally sharing information about research. That is why we all do science, because we are interested in the latest research, so we all want to discuss it! Some people don’t want to talk about their research because they are worried someone will nick their idea, but I say “so be it!”. Science in secret doesn’t work, we need to maintain a culture of openness.

LL: Who are your science heroes?

NW: Barbara McClintock is one of my all time heroes. She worked with corn which had differently coloured kernels and discovered that the colours were due to different transposable elements. She got the Nobel prize for that! Obviously, Darwin! I know it sounds a bit clichéd, but he was genuinely a fantastic scientist. Dame Linda Partridge who looks at the biology of ageing is amazing and I really admire Miriam Rothschild, a self-taught natural historian who kept working until she was almost 90.

LL: Quite a lot of those heroes were women! Do you think of yourself as a “woman in science” or just as a “scientist”?

NW: Both! There are shockingly few women at the top in science and there are many complicated reasons for that. So I don’t shy away from being a woman in science, I acknowledge it. And I acknowledge that the loss of great women from science is an issue. Almost two thirds of undergraduates in biology are female and at PhD level about half are female, but it drops off rapidly and there are hardly any female professors. Having half your talent not contributing to the subject further up the career ladder is terrible! And so I make an effort to show students that you can be a mum and a scientist. I spend a lot of time chatting to young women, encouraging them. Always being in the minority isn’t nice, we need to fix it. With more women, it is more fun for all of us! Women add creativity and different ways of thinking, and there is evidence that an equal sex ratio encourages a more collaborative atmosphere, which can only be good for science.


Thanks so much to Prof Nina Wedell for taking the time to talk to me! And thanks also to Lindsay Walker (@Linds__Walker) for suggesting Prof Wedell. Who would you like me to write about next? Leave your suggestions in the comments below, or tweet me @LabcoatLucy!

Dorothy Hodgkin: biochemist and x-ray crystallographer

When you look at the world, what do you see? Nobel prize winner Dorothy Hodgkin (1910–1994) saw puzzles waiting to be solved. Using x-ray crystallography, Dorothy solved some of the most challenging puzzles of her time: the complex atomic structures of penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin.

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So, what is x-ray crystallography? Put simply, it’s a method for discovering the atomic structure of a molecule by studying how x-rays bounce off a crystal of the molecule. The main requirement of the crystal is order. Like wallpaper which has a repeating two-dimensional pattern, a crystal has a repeating three-dimensional pattern. Once you have a good-quality crystal, you shoot a beam of x-rays at the crystal, they bounce off the atoms in the crystal and you record the resulting pattern made by the diffracted x-rays. From these patterns, you can work out the structure of the molecule (with the help of a lot of mathematics and a little imagination).

From a young age Dorothy was fascinated by crystals and as a teenager she was inspired to become a scientist by the 1923 and 1925 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures by Sir William Bragg, a pioneer in using x-rays to study the atomic structure of materials.

Dorothy went to Somerville College, Oxford to study chemistry. Luckily for her, the university set up its first x-ray crystallography lab just as she was due to start her undergraduate project. As I’m writing about Dorothy, I’m sure you can guess that her project was a great success. In fact, her thesis on the structure of thallium dialkyl halides was published as a short note in Nature. *Keep jealously under control*

Dorothy did her PhD at Cambridge, under J. D. Bernal. Working in Cambridge opened her eyes to the potential of x-ray crystallography to solve the structure of complex biological proteins. She carried out initial measurements on sterols and pepsin crystals (and published a lot!), but she returned to Oxford to focus on cholesterol. Soon Dorothy published the first structure of a steroid, cholesteryl iodide, with Harry Carlisle, but this was just the first of many biologically important molecules that Dorothy would solve.

Molecular model of Penicillin by Dorothy Hodgkin, c.1945

In 1940, Dorothy wasn’t the only future Nobel laureate working in Oxford. Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were culturing penicillium mould to extract the new and powerful antibiotic, penicillin. The day after their first historic experiment showing that penicillin could protect mice against streptococcal infections, Chain ran into Dorothy “in a very excited state” and promised her some crystals. Easier said than done. Penicillin proved to be extremely difficult to crystallise. At first, Dorothy and her research assistant, Barbara Low, could only work on smaller, breakdown products of penicillin such as penicilliamine and penicillic acid. In 1943, they started working with penicillin crystals, and in 1945, with the help of an early computer, they finally had the structure which contained (for the chemists out there) a thiazolidine ring and a β-lactam ring, much to everyone’s surprise. If you think you’re having a slow month, take heed! It took almost five years to discover this one structure. As Dorothy herself noted,

“I seem to have spent much more of my life not solving structures than solving them.”

But the effort paid off, and the discovery of penicillin’s unusual structure led to the development of a whole new class of β-lactam antibiotics. Dorothy’s model of penicillin was featured as Google’s Doodle on 12th May 2014, her 104th birthday.

Dorothy was an encouraging mentor to many enthusiastic young researchers. The most notable, perhaps, was Margaret Thatcher (then Roberts), the first female prime minister of the UK and the first with a degree in science (interestingly, she was said to be more proud of the latter)! Thatcher spent a year in Dorothy’s lab trying to determine the structure of the antibiotic gramicidin B (which wouldn’t be solved for another 30 years). It turned out that x-ray crystallography was not for her, but the pair maintained a warm relationship, and later Thatcher installed a portrait of the scientist in 10 Downing Street.

Dorothy herself was very politically engaged, but far to the left of her famous student. Dorothy’s husband and many of her close friends were Communists and, although Dorothy was never a card-carrying member, she was denied a visa to the US for her left-wing views. She later became President of Pugwash, a group which campaigns for nuclear disarmament (and itself won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1995).

After the war, Dorothy’s lab continued to churn out papers on a huge variety of molecules. In 1948, the new problem was vitamin B12. This vitamin is essential for the normal functioning of the brain, and had recently been discovered to treat pernicious anaemia rather effectively. Two rival pharmaceutical companies, Merck and Glaxo, were very interested to discover its structure. Dorothy was working with Glaxo, but she discovered that John White, a British scientist working at Princeton, was also working on vitamin B12 with Merck. There was an understanding in the x-ray crystallography community that different groups did not compete over the same structure, and so Dorothy suggested that they keep each other informed over their progress. She noted later that Glaxo must have thought her wholly unreliable, but she thought it was the honourable thing to do.

Dorothy’s group was making progress, but the complex structure was proving extremely difficult to untangle, as the mathematics involved was so computationally intensive. A group in California stepped in to lend a helping hand with their new, speedy computer, and together they solved it!

This discovery was huge and in 1964 Dorothy Hodgkin won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, but she still wasn’t finished in the lab. Dorothy had decided to solve the crystal structure of insulin in 1934, but it was 35 years (and a Nobel prize) before she actually published the structure. The technology was just not advanced enough back then, but with continued effort (just a bit of an understatement) Dorothy and her lab discovered the structure. Dorothy’s own words make it clear how important this final major discovery was:

“I used to say that the evening I developed the first x-ray photograph of insulin in 1935 was the most exciting moment of my life. But the Saturday afternoon in late July 1969, when we realised that the insulin electron density map was interpretable, runs that moment very close.”

Dorothy Hodgkin’s story is not one of a triumphant but lonely, female figure who had to sacrifice everything to be a scientist in a world built for men. On the contrary, she was married with three children. Somerville, her forward-thinking women’s college at Oxford, even gave her paid maternity leave (a first for the college and the university). Her colleagues (including many women) admired her and sought her advice. She was an extremely successful scientist and that is how they saw her, irrespective of her sex. It is certainly how she saw herself.

Thank you to Vicki Hughes from the Nuffield Foundation for suggesting Dorothy Hodgkin. Who would you like me to write about next? Please leave your suggestions in the comments below, or tweet me @labcoatlucy!


Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life by Georgina Ferry (1998)

The University of Oxford’s Bodelian Library has an incredible collection of Hodgkin’s notes and data.

Grace Hopper: pioneering computer programmer

Who is the most influential person in the history of computing? Tim Berners-Lee? Bill Gates? Steve Jobs? Before any of those guys were even born a woman called Grace Hopper learned how to use the world’s first programmable computer and pioneered a revolution in programming that would make computers accessible to everyone.

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On 7th December 1941, Professor Grace Hopper was enjoying a successful career teaching mathematics at Vassar College. Then news of the attack on Pearl Harbour changed the course of Hopper’s life. At the age of 37, she left her comfortable job and joined the U.S. Navy, thinking only of helping in the war effort.

For her first assignment, Lt. Hopper was sent to Massachusetts to work on one of the first programmable computers in the world, the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator also known as the Harvard Mark I.

The Mark I was a monstrous machine! Over 50 feet long and 8 feet tall, it contained hundreds of miles of wire and over 700,000 components. This all added up to make the machine weigh in at 4500kg, about the same as an African elephant.

Hopper’s new boss, Officer Howard Aiken (Mark I’s designer), was wholly unimpressed that the Navy sent him a woman to join his small team, but Hopper quickly proved herself to be a gifted programmer. In fact, Hopper’s intellect, work ethic and jocular spirit soon made her a favourite of the over-bearing commander.

Wartime working conditions were taxing. The hours were long and funds were low. Sound familiar to some researchers out there? But has your lab ever been so cash-strapped that you were tempted to steal from the U.S. Army to support your research? The programmers of Mark I did just that. When taking stacks of paper from the office next door the accepted wisdom was to “leave at least one, [because] even the army boys can tell the difference between some and none”. And, on top of it all, wartime rations didn’t allow for chocolate muffins to keep morale up during early morning meetings.

The work itself was even more challenging than the conditions. Coding consisted of punching holes in long strips of paper to represent input data and instructions. Like a player piano (see my Hedy Lamarr post), the computer read each line in turn and followed the instructions. The programmers had to make sure their code was error-free and efficient, as every second of the computer’s time was valuable.

Using this rudimentary programming system, the computer was used to solve diverse mathematical problems. For example, with one set of instructions the Mark I calculated launching angles for projectiles, but using a different programme, the same machine integrated partial differential equations for the Manhattan Project. By modern standards this might not sound all that impressive, but this adaptability was a big deal.

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“First actual case of bug being found.”

The original computer bug. Hopper and the Mark II team popularised the terms bug and debugging in computer science (yep, “II”, technology moved on just as quickly back then too). One night the Mark II computer stopped working and, after a painstaking inspection, the crew found a large moth in the electrical relays. They pasted the moth into their log book and from then on they referred to fixing glitches as “debugging”.

After the war, several projects were declassified and a new spirit of collaboration emerged between previously unconnected computer research groups. This was fostered by Hopper who invited others to see the Harvard computers, organised conferences and published continually, helping to establish the open source culture that is still strong in computer science today.

In the 1950s, computer programming was not the male-dominated industry that we see in Silicon Valley today. Hopper started programming before any gender stereotypes had been formed and after the war she was inundated with job offers. She chose to work for the start-up Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation (later part of Remington Rand) to help to develop UNIVAC I, the first commercial computer. Check out this 1950s TV advert for the UNIVAC, I’ll bet all the kids wanted one.

Hopper had an unrivalled knowledge of computers and how they worked, but she was also good with people. She was able convince business leaders with little understanding of computing why they needed a computer. And so the orders came flying in, but Hopper foresaw a big problem.

Every computer that was sold required highly skilled programmers to operate it, and these were in short supply. Hopper imagined a future where computers were not just tools for elite scientists, but where computers could be used by almost anyone. In order to achieve this, she developed a computer programme that translated human instructions into machine code that the computer could interpret. This translation programme is known as a compiler, and in 1952 it was revolutionary.

Programmers of the day were extremely resistant to this new technology, which could be pre-installed into all computers. “But Grace, then anyone will be able to write programs!” they cried. That was precisely the point and it would elevate computers from mere arithmetic machines to essential administrative tools.

Hopper, ever the visionary, also saw that the different computer manufacturers needed to co-ordinate their efforts. In the late 1950s government departments and businesses now had computers made by a range of companies, but each used a different language, so programmers had to start from scratch every time they were assigned to a different machine. I find it difficult enough to switch between PCs and Macs, but in those days retraining took months. What a waste of time!

Hopper brought together seven government agencies and ten top computer manufacturers and convinced them to collaborate to make a common business language. She remarked “I don’t think ever before or ever since have I seen in one room so much power to commit men and monies as I saw that day.” And in such company she excelled, convincing the Department of Defense, a huge customer with over 200 computers, to sponsor the development of the new language. As a result of this effort, COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language) became the first standard language. And guess what, it was mostly based on Hopper’s own text-based language FLOW-MATIC.

USS Hopper

USS Hopper

Hopper worked in the computer industry for the rest of her life, but she maintained her connection with the Navy too, eventually becoming a rear admiral. When she finally retired at the age of 79 she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the United States Navy. In recognition of her service, they named this boat (right) the USS Hopper. Captain America, eat your heart out, this is what the real wartime heroes get!

“Amazing Grace” was a teacher, a businesswoman, an inventor, a leader and a visionary. And for those of you who are worried that you are over the hill, she was 37 years old before she even saw a computer for the first time. When you turn 40, instead of buying a sports car, why not take up computer programming? In fact, don’t wait, start now: https://www.codecademy.com

*Did you know that Tim Berners-Lee, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were all born in the same year? They were born in 1955, which is the year Marty McFly travelled to in Back to the Future.


Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age by Kurt W. Beyer (2009)

Here is the world’s first ever computer manual, written by Hopper. This incredible piece of computing history is available to view free online! Grace Hopper would be delighted.

This interview with Grace Hopper shows you that she never stopped teaching, and she’s quite a hoot too!

Jane Goodall: primatologist and author

Jane Goodall made the first serious study of chimpanzees in the wild. She spent decades in the forest of the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania living among mankind’s closest relatives. Her observations transformed our understanding of chimpanzees and the lives of our early human ancestors.

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In February 1935 a chimpanzee was born in London Zoo for the first time, prompting Mr and Mrs Goodall to give their one-year-old daughter Jane a large and hairy toy chimpanzee. This gift would inspire Jane to become one of the most celebrated scientists of the 20th century.

Adventurous and determined, 26-year-old Jane Goodall travelled from England to Africa where she met Louis Leakey. He sensed her passion for animals immediately and became an invaluable mentor.

Leakey suggested that Jane might take on an ambitious project to study chimpanzees living on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The remains of prehistoric man had been discovered there and he thought that an understanding of chimpanzee behaviour might shed light on the behaviour of our Stone Age ancestors. And so began a journey.

The young European woman required a chaperone to live in the African chimpanzee reserve, and so Goodall’s mother gave up the security, comfort and climate of Southampton, England to spend months in an isolated African forest, just so that Jane could pursue her research. Never mind Jane’s damehood, I think Mrs Goodall deserved a sainthood for that!

At first, the chimpanzees were extremely wary of humans. They would flee when they saw Goodall, and so in the early days she had to watch them from over 500 yards away using binoculars. Gradually, they became used to her presence. She was able to observe them from closer quarters and got to know individual chimpanzees.

Goodall noticed that the chimpanzees each had their own personalities. They showed emotions such as happiness, sadness and fear. They communicated with one another, and made many human-like gestures: hugging, kissing, shaking their fists and patting each other on the back.

Unusually, rather than numbering her subjects of study, she gave them names: David Greybeard, Goliath, Flo and Flint to list a few. When she saw a similarity, she named the chimpanzees after people she knew. An interesting compliment.

Goodall’s fascination with chimpanzees gave her an incredible motivation and energy. Every day, she woke before dawn then scaled the steep slopes of the mountainous Gombe Stream reserve to find her chimpanzees. She followed and observed them all day and into the evening, then worked late into the night writing up her observations. Even in the rainy season, when the grasses were over 6 foot high, she would rise before the sun and get soaked through with dew rather than miss even an hour with the primates.

Goodall’s dedication was rewarded. In her first six months (and importantly before her first grant ran out) she made two groundbreaking observations.

At the time, chimpanzees were thought to be passive vegetarians, but Goodall observed a chimpanzee eating meat: a baby piglet. Later she would even witness chimpanzees hunting infant baboons and red colobus monkeys, though this hunting behaviour was rare.

Her other major discovery came when she witnessed a chimpanzee fishing termites out of a termite nest with a twig. The chimpanzee first picked leaves off the twig – the first recorded example of a chimpanzee modifying an object to use it as a tool. One of the commonly accepted definitions of a human was a creature who “made tools to a regular and set pattern”, but Goodall’s observation put that idea on its head. In response to this discovery, Goodall’s mentor Louis Leakey said:

“Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

Goodall never let herself be limited by conforming to “the norm”. Although she didn’t have an undergraduate degree, she went to Cambridge University in 1962 to study for a PhD. She was only the eighth person to be allowed to do so and, as Cambridge was founded in 1209, that’s only about one person every century. They clearly saw some serious potential in her!

Even after completing her PhD project on the Gombe Stream chimpanzees, Goodall returned. This was to be a lifelong project. With further time spent amongst the chimpanzees, she witnessed more advanced behaviours. She observed the beginnings of cooperation in their hunting and saw chimpanzees sharing meat. This was the first nonhuman primate to show such behaviour in the wild. And even some humans still haven’t mastered the concept of sharing food.

Over time the team expanded as students arrived keen to study the chimpanzees. This allowed Goodall to spend time on other pursuits. Goodall is a prolific writer for both children and adults. She is also an activist, raising awareness of the threats facing wild chimpanzees, including habitat destruction and the bushmeat trade. She founded a conservation organization The Jane Goodall Institute which aims to protect wildlife and the environment more broadly.

Now, she is Dame Jane Goodall. She is a UN Messenger of Peace championing environmental protection and conservation on a huge range of issues from climate change to the depletion of fish stocks. This is an elite role indeed. There are only a dozen other UN Messengers of Peace including Leonardo DiCaprio (@LeoDiCaprio), Edward Norton (@EdwardNorton) and Yo-Yo Ma (@YoYo_Ma).

Goodall has transcended science to become a star on the small screen. Goodall voiced herself in an episode of the ‘The Wild Thornberrys’ where she and Eliza saved animals from poachers. The primatologist was even satirised as Dr Joan Bushwell in The Simpsons, which is a sure sign of fame!

Jane Goodall had anything but a traditional scientific career. Her story highlights the value of a good mentor, and, more importantly, the need to study something about which you are truly passionate. If nothing else, it’ll make it easier to get out of bed in the morning…

If you have any suggestions for who I should write about in my next ‘Women in Science’ blog post, please leave a comment or tweet me @labcoatlucy. Thanks for reading, please share if you’e enjoyed it!


‘In the Shadow of Man’ by Jane Goodall (1971) – this autobiography is beautifully written.

A short (and funny) interview: Jane Goodall teaches John Oliver some proper begging behaviour, and shows you how to eat a banana like a chimpanzee!

The Jane Goodall Archives from the National Geographic Society

Rebecca Lancefield: bacteriologist

Hard work really does pay off. Rebecca Lancefield (1895–1981) is a case in point. She didn’t have a “eureka moment” and become a scientific goddess overnight. But then no one does, no matter how people tell it after the event.

Rebecca Lancefield

Over a career spanning six decades, Lancefield became a world expert on streptococci, the bacteria responsible for strep throat, impetigo, scarlet fever and, the very rare, necrotising fasciitis a.k.a. the flesh-eating disease!! But I shouldn’t tar all streptococci with the same brush: there are also lots of harmless strains. Indeed, separating out the many different kinds of streptococci and identifying the role of their constituent parts in disease was Lancefield’s life work.

Lancefield’s career got off to a typical start: she was trying to find something that wasn’t there (if you haven’t experienced this then please don’t gloat in the comments section). The “green” viridans streptococci were thought to cause rheumatic fever. It turns out they didn’t, but she managed to publish two papers proving the hypothesis false. Negative results aren’t always bad!

The next challenge was haemolytic streptococci which destroy red blood cells. These actually were important in rheumatic fever. Lancefield had a huge range of streptococcus samples, and she identified a polysaccharide (long chain of sugars) that was on the surface of all the bacteria collected from acute human infections. She defined streptococci with this “C” carbohydrate as “group A” strain streptococci. She named proteins pretty conservatively (unlike the scientists who shortened S-nitrosoglutathione to “SNOG” and the ones who called a new genetic element “moron” ).

When people are infected with these haemolytic streptococci the body fights back, producing antibodies which recognise the invading bacteria. But antibodies only recognise a small part of the bacteria (known as the antigen), the same way that the police are able to identify the criminal from a fingerprint found at the scene of the crime. Lancefield found that the antibodies produced by a person with a haemolytic streptococcus infection did not recognise all the group A streptococci equally – the bacteria had different fingerprints! So the antibodies you produce against one infection might not protect you from another strain of streptococcus, which explained why people were getting recurrent streptococcal infections when they should have developed immunity. She named this protein fingerprint the M antigen (because those bacteria were matt not glossy when grown).

Not only were these discoveries useful for other scientists studying streptococci, but, in a paper published in 1933, Lancefield highlighted their epidemiological importance: providing “a means to determine the origin of a given strain” in outbreaks of disease. As impressive as these findings are, they make up only a small fraction of her life’s work. Over the following years she identified more streptococcal antigens and further classified streptococci, developing the Lancefield grouping, still in use today.

During the Second World War, Lancefield’s lab became known as the “Scotland Yard of streptococcal mysteries” because she characterised unknown strains isolated from military hospitals across the USA. I’m pretty sure she never required the help of any consulting detectives though! Throughout the rest of her career Lancefield gladly received streptococcus samples from all over the world and painstakingly investigated every one. She filled several dozen volumes of loose-leaf notebooks with her observations. These are famously difficult to decipher, and Lancefield herself admitted that she struggled to read her old notes, but it doesn’t seem to have held her back! The Rockefeller Institute still holds the Lancefield Collection of over 6,000 streptococcus strains.

Like all good scientists, Lancefield liked to relax sometimes too! Every year around Thanksgiving she had the whole group over for her famous (very boozy) eggnog, still made by the lab today!  By all accounts, she was good to work with: a good teacher and generous with her samples and her time, but I’m not sure how many of the accounts were written drunk on eggnog!

Rebecca Lancefield’s investigations and discoveries paved the way for understanding how streptococcus bacteria cause disease. She had an unparalleled scientific instinct and superb analytical brain, but she was also methodical, meticulous and hardworking. A modern study looking at letters of recommendation for chemists reported that “grindstone words” like these are more commonly used to describe female applicants, whereas “standout words” such as “exceptional”, “brilliant” and “fabulous” are more commonly used to describe male applicants (I know, “fabulous”, really?) which is disturbing. However, these qualities should not be underestimated: they helped Lancefield become one of the most revered scientists of the 20th century! A lot of the time keeping your nose to the grindstone is exactly what it takes to be great scientist!

Thanks to Dr Boo McConnell for suggesting Dr Rebecca Lancefield! Who should I write about next in my ‘Women in Science Series’? Leave a comment, or suggest someone on Twitter @labcoatlucy!


McCarty, M. “Rebecca Craighill Lancefield (1895-1981): A Biographical Memoir.” Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 57: 226-246

O’Hern, E. M. “Rebecca Craighill Lancefield, Pioneer Microbiologist.” ASM News 41 (1975): 805–810.

http://centennial.rucares.org/index.php?page=Bacterial_Classification

Did you know that these actresses are scientists too?

Hedy Lamarr (see previous post) was a celebrated actresses and inventor, but how many other actresses are also scientists? Here are a few!

Mayim Bialik @missmayim famously plays neuroscientist Amy in The Big Bang Theory, but she took time out from a successful acting career to earn a PhD, writing her dissertation on the hypothalamic activity of patients with Prader-Willi syndrome.

Danica McKellar @danicamckellar was a child actress, starring in The Wonder Years, but she went on to do a mathematics undergraduate degree and published a paper. She now writes books which aim to make maths more accessible to adolescent girls.

Natalie Portman is not only an Oscar-winning actress, but is also one of the few people with a finite Erdős–Bacon number indicating that she has a collaborative link to both Kevin Bacon through films and mathematician Paul Erdős through academic papers. While studying at Harvard she contributed to this psychology paper.

Nichelle Nichols @NichelleIsUhura, best known for playing Lieutenant Uhura in the Star Trek TV series, went on to help in a NASA project to recruit minority and female personnel. The new recruits included Dr Sally Ride, the first female American astronaut, and the current NASA administrator. Thanks @henryjameslau for suggesting Nichelle Nichols!

Did I miss someone? If you can think of any more actresses with a STEM background, or actresses involved in STEM outreach, please leave a comment!

Hedy Lamarr: actress and inventor

In the Golden Age of cinema, Hedy Lamarr was revered as “the most beautiful woman in the world” but the dazzling actress was also an inventor who would change the future of telecommunications. During World War II, Hedy Lamarr and the avant-garde composer, George Antheil, developed a frequency-hopping mechanism which contributed to the development of spread-spectrum communication technology now used in WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS. But, how and why did a Hollywood star and a film composer invent a new method of secret communication?

Hedy Lamarr with border

Hedy was passionate about both acting and inventing, but it was on the silver screen that she found her first success. She appeared in her first film at the age of 15 and was a rather risqué star of German cinema at the age of 18. She soon married her first husband, Fritz Mandl, who was a leading Austrian arms dealer, with close links to various fascist regimes. During their marriage in the 1930s, Hedy acquired a great deal of knowledge about munitions and torpedoes by listening to dinner conversations between her husband and his business associates. ‘Fascist arms dealer’ doesn’t sound like the makings of a dream husband and indeed it wasn’t a particularly happy marriage, but these conversations would later inspire her greatest invention.

Hedy escaped her controlling spouse in 1937 and made her way to the USA where she worked for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. Between movies, Hedy spent much of her time inventing. One of her early (and less successful) projects was a cola-flavoured stock cube for homemade soft drinks, which I’m sure tasted better than it sounds. She had a room devoted to drafting designs for inventions and she turned down many invitations to Hollywood parties because she was too busy with her hobby. Chocolate fountains didn’t exist back then though, so she probably wasn’t missing much.

During World War II, Hedy turned her inventive mind towards helping her newly adopted country in the war effort. Hedy met George Antheil in the summer of 1940, and they discussed the problem of remote-controlled torpedoes being ‘jammed’ by the enemy. Radio signals from a plane or boat to a torpedo were transmitted at a fixed frequency. The enemy could transmit signals at the same frequency, which decreased the signal-to-noise ratio, effectively blocking the signal. This was known as radio ‘jamming’.

Hedy’s idea was to prevent enemy jamming by changing the frequency being used to transmit the radio signal to the torpedo during transmission. This is like the BBC broadcasting the start of a song on Radio 1, then playing the chorus on Radio 4, and the end on Radio 2. The person listening to the song has to change the channel to catch the song. She imagined a radio transmitter and receiver which were synchronised to change their tuning simultaneously, switching randomly between different frequencies. Precisely synchronising these changes in frequency was a difficult challenge.

Together Hedy and George developed a mechanism for synchronising the frequency-hopping between the torpedo receiver and the transmitter. George had worked extensively with self-playing pianos. These instruments had music recorded as holes in a roll of paper. The paper would scroll down, not unlike Guitar Hero, and air blowing through a hole led to the striking of the corresponding note. The pair used a similar mechanism, designing two identical ribbons of information, one in the torpedo and one in the transmitter, which would encode the frequency of transmission. To start the two ribbons simultaneously upon release of the torpedo, they used electromagnets to hold the starting pins in position on springs. Both electromagnets were connected in a circuit to the same battery, so when the torpedo launched, the circuit broke and the pins were released in sync. To further confound the enemy, Hedy and George included seven transmitting channels in their design with three of these sending false signals.

In December of 1940, Hedy and George took their ‘Secret Communication System’ to the National Inventors Council, an organisation established to identify inventions with possible military use. Hedy and George’s submission was warmly received and it was soon sent on to the U.S. Navy. They submitted their idea to the U.S. Patent Office and in 1942 the pair were awarded U.S. Patent 2,292,387.

The Navy rejected the idea during the war, saying the device was “too bulky to be incorporated in the average torpedo” – the piano metaphor seemed to confuse them! However, they kept the invention classified as secret. The patent was rediscovered in the 1950s when companies were developing non-frequency-hopping spread-spectrum, and it was finally implemented in the 1960s.

Along with other inventors, Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil laid the groundwork for modern spread-spectrum technologies. In the 1990s the two inventors were finally recognised for their achievement, receiving the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneers Award, and, in 2014, Hedy and George were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. If you’re feeling really inspired you can visit the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Alexandria, VA on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office campus, they’ve even got a gift shop!

Hedy famously said, “Any girl can look glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” This cutting remark might reveal that Hedy was frustrated that her intellect was so often underestimated because of her looks, something that still happens to women today. But Hedy showed everyone that you can have brains and beauty!

Thanks to @KHerpoldt for suggesting Hedy Lamarr. Who would you like the next ‘Women in Science’ post to be about? Leave a comment or tweet @labcoatlucy


‘Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lemarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ by Pulitzer prize-winner Richard Rhodes.

‘Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film’ by Ruth Barton.

‘Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr’ by Stephen Shearer.

Women in Science Series

Hi there! Over the next few months I will be blogging about influential women in science from the past and the present.

I would love to get some suggestions of female scientists who inspire you or who you think deserve a bit more recognition for their contribution to science. Write your suggestions below and I’ll swat up on the best and the brightest female scientists and write a blog post to help spread the word!