Why I voted for the Rosalind Franklin bobblehead

November 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

I credit the actress Juliet Stevenson for helping me chose a career in science. When I was 18, as part of the “A” level course in biology, my high school biology teacher let us watch a made-for-TV movie called “Life Story” (its other name, “Race for the Double-Helix,” immediately gives away what the movie was all about). Stevenson played the role of Rosalind Franklin (Jeff Goldblum played James Watson, before his Jurassic Park fame).

Until I became acquainted with Franklin’s character in that film, Marie Curie had been the only female scientist about whom I knew anything. But Curie was almost a mythical, ghostly figure, and I had no idea what daily life had been like for her.

Stevenson’s portrayal of Franklin was my first glimpse of how a female scientist navigated life. In Parisian cafes, with cups of coffee on the table and surrounded by friends, Stevenson’s Franklin was warm and generous, with a hearty laugh. But around Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick and Watson, Franklin turned into a cold, impenetrable, aggressive woman who took great pride in and care with her meticulous work and closely guarded her data.

As a teenager growing up in the conservative Middle East surrounded largely by people from patriarchal societies, I felt a kinship to Franklin that I couldn’t articulate but recognized. I am fun-loving and gregarious. But in our small science classes at school, there was fierce gender rivalry. I and a few female friends were outnumbered by boys. Boys were expected to become doctors, engineers and scientists. Girls had to prove they were good enough to be doctors, engineers and scientists. I had to be sharp and ready with the correct answers, always demonstrating that I could beat the boys on what was supposedly their turf. My notes, which I diligently rewrote every day after school in colored pens in neater penmanship than possible in class, were highly coveted but I refused to share them with anyone. If I didn’t get the highest score on tests and exams, I at least made sure I beat the boys. (I was willing to share the two top rungs of scholarship with my best friend.)

I couldn’t put my finger on it then, but watching Stevenson’s portrayal of Franklin told me that I had been doing what needed to be done to succeed in science. As time took me through a bachelor’s degree and then a Ph.D. in the life sciences, I learned to meld the two sides of me, mixing in fun with learning and not being afraid to do things that were considered feminine, such as baking cakes for my grad school labmates (for two years, I was the only woman in the lab) and leaving stern notes by the balance to clean it up signed “Lab Mom.” I also realized that women like Franklin had left footsteps for me to follow and that I had it easier because of women like her.

So as I pondered my choices for a female scientist bobblehead earlier this week, I felt I had to give a nod (literally!) to the woman who first showed me how to be a scientist.

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