Scholar looks at female scientists’ role in RNA splicing discovery
The 40th anniversary of the discovery of RNA splicing is set to be celebrated next year, and yet credit and recognition for this scientific breakthrough is rarely given to the actual scientists responsible for it, said Dr. Pnina G. Abir-Am at the Women’s Studies Research Center on Tuesday.
Biochemists Louise Chow and Susan Berget were both the first authors of studies that contributed to the discovery of RNA splicing in 1977. Their discovery was rewarded with a Nobel Prize in 1993; however, the credit for the discovery was given not to Chow and Berget but to their lab directors — both men.
“These were women who [have been involved in] science since before 1972, so they are complete science devotees, as we say, because at that time nobody encouraged women to go into science,” said Abir-Am, science historian and resident scholar of the WSRC.
Some scientists, including James Watson — the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA — believe that the Nobel prize credit for the discovery should have gone in part to Chow and Berget, who both played crucial roles in the experiments’ designs, according to “Watson and Crick,” a book by Victor McElheny. Still, this discovery’s credit disparity remains unresolved in the greater scientific community.
As a result, Abir-Am, alongside undergraduate student scholar partners Danielle Robbins ’17 and Jaime Korner ’17, has been researching the discovery’s credit disparity and the culture of gender bias in 1970s science labs by analyzing how Chow and Berget’s proper roles in the discovery are remembered by scientists today.
The team of three interviewed scientists at Brandeis as part of their investigation to analyze how the discovery is remembered by “pertinent scientists,” said Abir-Am.
Abir-Am’s motive for the study is in part due to the upcoming 40th anniversary: “The reason I’m doing this now and not five years ago … [is that] recent anniversaries [are] a great opportunity for historical research — you don’t need to explain to scientists [why] we need to relook at the past,” she said.
RNA splicing is one of the most prominent molecular genetic discoveries of the 20th century, a discovery showing that genes do not translate as continuous strings but instead require “splicing” to aid the creation of mRNA molecules that are then translated and formed into the proteins found in living organisms.
Abir-Am and her student scholar partners have conducted interviews with several scientists involved in the original studies, as well as scientists from the Brandeis community.
The team now awaits contact with the studies’ co-authors across the U.S., France and Israel to further their ongoing research.