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Dr. Maxine Singer

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Maxine Singer that took place at the "Winding Your Way through DNA" symposium at the University of California San Francisco in 1992. Dr. Singer's research career has been prolific, and she is widely recognized as a leader in the effort to promote science education. At the time of the talk, she was President of the Carnegie Institution in Washington and an active researcher at the National Institutes of Health.

Excerpted from the symposium transcripts with permission of the University of California, San Francisco.


Interviewer: How have things changed? What was it like being a graduate student in '56?

Maxine Singer: I was a grad student in biochemistry; no one had ever heard of molecular biology then. I never studied any genetics and I studied very little biology. I thought I was a chemist, in a sense. There were maybe three or four groups worldwide working on nucleic acids and my supervisor, who was himself a protein chemist, when it came time to advise me where to go and what to do for a postdoc, he said, "Go work with Leon Heppel," and I said, "Leon who?"

I'd never heard of Leon Heppel and the advice was based on the fact that Leon was one of the few people in the United States doing nucleic acids, studying RNA and DNA and my thesis supervisor, being a very wise man, knew that was the world of the future and that was what I went and did in those first five years from, say, '56-'61.

Everything just began blowing up. Of course we'd had the discovery of the double helix in 1953, which is while I was a graduate student. But more important than that, in the '50's, people began to be able to study the synthesis of DNA and RNA in test tubes by extracting enzymes that synthesized those polymers. They set up systems that built proteins outside of cells, by making cell extracts, and, in the course of that, the genetic code was cracked. The work that I was doing in the late '50's enabled me to synthesize RNA polymers for my colleague, Marshall Nirenberg down the hall, who used them to do the work that he did in deciphering the genetic code. At that time, there was still very few people doing this.

It's interesting: there's a very famous kind of scientific meeting every summer called the Gordon Conference that's usually built around a particular subject. In the '50's there was a protein conference but no nucleic acid Gordon Conference. And up until the mid '60's, all the nucleic acid people ever got was one morning of the whole week to talk about nucleic acids. It was a commentary on where we were, and of course, now there are probably half a dozen Gordon Conferences just on nucleic acids in one way or another. I also made all my friends then, all my scientific friends, who I've been friends with ever since.

Interviewer: Did you ever get the sense that people were on to something big or were you not sure?

Maxine Singer: Well, you knew by then that it was big because Avery, and then Hershey and Chase, had shown that DNA was the chemical molecule that carried genetic information. Watson and Crick had shown that structure-wise, which opened up the possibilities for how it actually worked. So you knew that it was very big and very fundamental. And then, every week, something new was discovered so you just kept getting reinforced in all of this and nothing ever seems to run out. I've described it as a 30-year high, and I think that's really what it's been--a 35-year high, now.

Interviewer: What was it like being a woman in the sciences in the late '50's and early '60's?

Maxine Singer: It was like being a woman. It wasn't an issue where I was; I was very lucky. I was very naive. In those days, people didn't discuss the problem, and I've never heard anybody discuss it. I've been very, very fortunate in college to be in a place where it didn't matter and where most of the people who were really smart in science were women, just by dumb luck, in my class. I went to graduate school in a place that was very welcoming of women and I had no idea it was any problem. And then I went to the NIH as a postdoc and within a year and a half they offered me a job, so I never ever worried about it and I didn't think about it.

In retrospect, the first time it had ever become an issue was when I realized I was having trouble getting postdocs to work in my lab and I went to the chairman of our department and said, "You have a lot of postdocs applying; how come I never got one in my lab?" And he was very straight with me; he said, "Nobody wants to come and work with a woman." So that was the first time that I really hit it, so I never had any kind of bad experiences, or I never noticed them. I'm not really sure which, but I didn't pay any attention, I was naive about it. So I wasn't looking.

Interviewer: Is there a problem?

Maxine Singer: Sure, there's a problem. I was pretty dumb not to know it. But there is a problem. Look at this symposium. Liz Blackburn is one of the moderators, that is, she's introducing people, and I'm the only woman who's speaking in the whole program. And that's crazy, because there's a lot of terrific young women who are doing marvelous science and speak very well. It's kind of crazy that I'm the only one in the Symposium. And I suspect that that's why I'm here. They must have looked at the list that they had and said, oh, we can't do this, someone will complain.

Interviewer: No, come on, really, it's not like they were...

Maxine Singer: Sure it's like that.

Interviewer: Why?

Maxine Singer: Because a lot of people discuss this in scientific meetings or programs. If there aren't any women speaking, people will notice it, they write letters and complain, so people who put together symposia like this, they invite a bunch of people and one morning they wake up and they look at the list and they say, "What are we going to do--there's no woman."

Interviewer: I don't think you're giving yourself enough credit...

Maxine Singer: Oh, I'm not saying I'm a lousy speaker, or that I don't belong, nothing like that. I'm saying that there are a lot of other people who would really be good.

Interviewer: What about the fact that there aren't any Asians, blacks or Hispanics?

Maxine Singer: There are a lot of wonderful Asian scientists and I don't know why there aren't any in this symposium. They could easily have invited a bunch of people. The same is not true with blacks, there are very few black people doing fundamental research for a whole lot of complicated reasons. So, the absence of such people in a symposium such as this is not hard to understand.

Interviewer: How to address that, the broader issue of representation in science? About people getting the postdocs, people getting the supports through colleges?

Maxine Singer: I'm less concerned with representation than I am with being sure that we make this wonderful life available to everyone . I'm very concerned, in particular, about trying to make it clear to young black kids that science is an interesting way to spend your life and there are a lot of good jobs. [In Washington, DC] 97% of the children in public school in the District of Columbia are black, and I'm very concerned with that and I'm trying to work hard on that with programs in science for elementary school children.

Interviewer: Why is biology a good field? What 's your pitch to them?

Maxine Singer: Well, your pitch to them is this: take a walk outside and take a look at the things around you. Ask them questions and get them to begin asking you questions and then you don't have to tell them why biology's a good field and they get interested and excited by themselves. But, a lot of people walk by a bush like that and they see a bush and they walk right on. So you have to learn to stop and realize there's a lot of interesting questions about that bush and a lot of interesting ways of spending your time thinking about it and doing things.

And that's what appeals to kids. Not talking to them about why it's interesting, but putting them in a situation where they will realize by themselves that it's interesting and then you want them to understand that it's not only interesting but it's a way to earn a living and to have a good time doing it, so you take them to labs and show them people doing science.

One of the interesting things about taking kids to labs is that the first thing they always comment on is what everybody's wearing. They tend to think of important people, like scientists, as going to work in a suit and tie. And so, they always comment, "Oh, he's got blue jeans on," and "Oh, he's got sneakers on," and it impresses them. You never know what's going to do things but it happens every time.

Interviewer: It's kind of interesting, being that biotechnology is a technology that came out of academia; it didn't come out of commerce.

Maxine Singer: That's exactly right.

Interviewer: Could you tell me about that connection between academia and business?

Maxine Singer: Actually, biotechnology is a very good example. When people were studying those things which have built to biotechnology, no one, not the people doing it, not the people funding it, had the slightest clue that there would one day be an industry developed from this.

People studied bacterial genetics--why would anybody want to do that? Viruses that infect bacteria: what a crazy thing to do! The restriction enzymes that we all use came totally by accident and from the kind of work which now would be very hard to fund....

People who think that you can plan a path and know what to do at the beginning, and where it will take you in the end in terms of things that would be of commercial importance, should know better because there are so many examples in the world of things happening by accident and very few things the other way. Of course, once you have the kernel of an idea then it's different. In 1937, Franklin Roosevelt, who was the President of the United States, commissioned a group of very distinguished--very gray, and so forth--scientists to tell him what was going to be new in the next decade and they met and had very pompous discussions and wrote a long and serious report. The report concludes that airplanes will never go beyond 350 miles an hour; the report doesn't contain a single mention of nuclear energy; the report doesn't contain the word "plastics." That's a good lesson.

Who was it who said, when a smart person tells you that something can't be done then you don't believe them?

Interviewer: Let's talk about the change in your role of running a research institute. Do you miss the bench?

Maxine Singer: Well, I actually hadn't been at the bench for a long time before because I'd been running a big lab at the NIH. I've always had a group, but I wasn't, myself, at the bench. It's much more fun running a private research institution than trying to run something in the United States government because government bureaucracy really makes it hard to do. So one thing I really enjoy about being at the Carnegie is I don't feel I'm hemmed in by a lot of bureaucracy. Part of that, of course, is I'm the bureaucracy and it stops with me, so it can be however I wish it to be.

But the best part of it is that I thought about areas of science I haven't thought about since I was in college. I haven't thought about physics, I haven't thought about real chemistry since I was a graduate student. I certainly never thought about astronomy. Now, suddenly, I'm really connected to people who are doing front line work in earth sciences, geochemistry, geophysics, extragalactic astronomy. We own two observatories and I have to worry about the care and tending of telescopes and the construction of telescopes. So I've learned something about optics, I've learned something about the solar system in a real way which I'd never even thought about before.

And I've learned, really, that all of this is a big continuum of science, really held together by the notion of evolution, that everything is always changing in the universe, in the solar system, on earth, and so a lot of the ideas that "cook" things have common threads to them--although the actual science, of course, is very, very different. I've enjoyed that enormously. I also enjoy the spirit of the institution: it is a very independent kind of spirit and that's the tradition and I enjoy being part of that.

Interviewer: Now that you're looking at all the other fields, how is biology different? How is biology different from astronomy?

Maxine Singer: One very, very big difference between astronomy and earth sciences or biology is, you can't do experiments in astronomy. It's basically an observational science and, to the extent that you're involved with things and equipment, it's to increase your observational capabilities. That's why people build new telescopes bigger and bigger, why they develop new detecting devices. And that, I think, is the biggest difference between them.

Now, if you go to the difference between biology and earth science, in fact, over the past couple of years, the differences I thought existed have begun to narrow. I used to think that biology was distinguished by tremendous complexity. A simplicity of ideas but a complexity. But in fact, earth sciences are extraordinarily complex in much the same way, so if you look at a rock, no rock is homogeneous, and if you look at it on smaller and smaller scales, it's one thing if you cut it open and you see a lot of different kinds of stones, and if you do the chemistry you learn the different kinds of minerals, but if you then look at it from the microscopic level, the electron microscopic level, the heterogeneity just continues right down to the smallest scale that you can look at. That's why geology is full of all these names just like biologists have all these names for genes. You've got a different name for every piece of rock and every stone, but the critical thing is what our understanding the chemistry of the rocks tells you about the history or the evolution of the planet. Or if you look at a meteorite, what it tells you about the history and evolution of the solar system. And in that sense, it's similar to biology, because one of the main things that we learn by studying genes is something of the history and evolution of life on our planet.

Interviewer: In terms of the observational, I think of a biologist at the turn of the century as probably the naturalist--very descriptive. Have we seen a fundamental shift in biology from the observational to an experimental?

Maxine Singer: Very, very clearly. When I was in college, biology was still observational, phenomenological. I actually didn't like it too well. I liked chemistry. It made more sense. You could think about how things happened. But biology has completely changed in the last 30 years. We really can think about mechanisms processed in biology. In the course of it we've lost a little bit of the connection to the natural world and the things that inspired natural historians in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Probably more seriously we've lost that [connection to the natural world] from the teaching of biology in schools, for that's the kind of thing that really attracts children. But biology now is very mechanistic and you can think about processes and it's very satisfying from that standpoint.

In a way, though, the Human Genome Project is going back to the old way of collecting things, only what you're collecting is sequences. And you're going to catalog them just like people catalog fossils or name species and a lot of the work in figuring out the meaning of the sequences that are collected. The thing that differentiates it is that it will be the basis for new experimentation, so both these lines in biology will go hand-in-hand.

Interviewer: Aren't we also looking, when we go the DNA route, for the fossils of evolution, the baggage that has gone into creating us?

Maxine Singer: When we do the Human Genome Project, one of the important things is to look at the genomes of other organisms as well. In fact, the Genome Project recognizes that and is supporting the sequencing of yeast, certain worms, plants and so forth. One of the reasons for doing that is to compare genes in all these organisms because by doing so we learn something about what the common ancestor of all those organisms might have been like, what their genes were like, in fact, so in that sense the Genome Project is part of the study of evolutionary biology.

Interviewer: I didn't ask you why you like what you do. Do you want to answer that one?

Maxine Singer: Why I like what I do... Well, it's never boring. I guess that's one of the fundamental reasons. It's never boring. The question at hand is always interesting whether it is a question in the lab or whether it's a question about how to organize science for the Carnegie Institution so that the Carnegie scientists can do what they want to do. The second thing is you are blessed by having as friends and colleagues the smartest people that you could possibly have and it follows from that the people who are the most fun. They're clever, they're witty, they're good to be with, but I think, fundamentally, that it's never boring.

Interviewer: Are there any choices in DNA research that should not be pursued?

Maxine Singer: Many people concern themselves with the question as to whether different lines of research in biology and other things ought to be followed through. And biology in particular has been a target for discussions of that kind. It's a question that basically doesn't make any sense, because there is no way to stop scientists who are interested in pursuing certain questions about the living world--if we try to stop it in our countries somebody else will do it somewhere else, and we live in one world now. We all learn whatever gets learned; wherever it gets learned, we all know it.

So, if there are issues that trouble people about what might be learned then the only sensible thing is to worry about them and figure out how you want to deal with them. But stopping people from doing things always involves repression and that never works well. It sometimes works for awhile but it finally always gets very ugly and has been the source --repression of that kind--has been the source of the world's greatest troubles since the beginning of history. So, I don't think it makes any sense, plus the fact that it won't work.


Go to: An Interview with JAMES WATSON, PhD


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