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Rosalind Franklin lived during an exciting and turbulent era both socially and scientifically. Upon passing the admission examination for Cambridge University in 1938, at fifteen, Franklin was was informed by her affluent family that she would not recieve financial support. Franklin¡¯s father disapproved of women receiving college educations, however, both Franklin¡¯s aunt and mother supported her quest for education. Eventually, her father gave in and agreed to pay her tuition. Franklin would later prove to be worth her education.
As Rosalind Franklin was pursuing her degree World War II raged. She focused her research on coal, the most efficient use of energy resources. Five papers on the subject were published before Franklin¡¯s 26th birthday. Further, Franklin had given up her fellowship to become a physical chemist at the British Coal Utilization Research Association at age 22. She was indeed an efficient and driven researcher. Franklin utilized the X-ray diffraction techniques (that she has become most famous for) while working in a Paris laboratory between 1947 and 1950, with crystallographer Jacques Mering.
X-ray crystallography helped determined the three dimensional structure of DNA when Franklin returned to England. She became the first person to find the molecule¡¯s sugar-phosphate backbone while working with a team of scientists at King¡¯s College in London. Unfortunately, leadership misunderstandings and personality conflicts depreciated Franklin¡¯s effectivness in the laboratory. Maurice Wilkins, the laboratory¡¯s second in command, returned from a vacation expecting Franklin to work under him. Franklin came to the laboratory with the understanding that she would be researching alone. While Franklin was direct and decisive, Wilkins tended to be alluding and passive-aggressive. As Franklin made further advances in DNA research, Wilkins secretly shared her findings with the famous duo of Watson and Crick, who were then working at Cambridge. Franklin¡¯s discoveries fueled their research machine, allowing them to advance beyond others in the field. They would eventually publish on DNA structure in 1953. Due to discriminatory procedures at King¡¯s College, Franklin eventually left to become the lead researcher at London¡¯s Birbeck College--upon agreeing not to work on DNA. She furthered her studies in coal and made significant advances in virology. Franklin died in 1958 of ovarian cancer. She lived 37 monumentally significant years.
After researching Rosalind Franklin¡¯s scientific career, I truly believe that she was a pioneer rather than a follower. Her early coal work is still referred to today; she helped launch the fields of high-strength carbon fibers; and was an integral part of early structural virology.
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