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Rosalind Franklin: unifying life and the sciences for the next generation of women

Discovering the structure of DNA
Professor Simon M. Hughes

Professor of Developmental Cell Biology

14 April 2023

The double helix is an iconic image of our age, but what do young students know about the work that culminated in the discovery of the structure of DNA and the people who did it?

At The Grey Coat Hospital, not a hospital but a ‘comprehensive school for girls’ in inner London, students learn about Rosalind, Maurice and their work during a visit to King’s College London and Guy’s Hospital hosted annually by the Randall Centre for Cell and Molecular Biophysics.

Each year, the school awards a Rosalind Franklin Prize to the student who makes the most effort to improve their chance of entrance to the university of their choice to read a scientific, medical or medical-related subject. To encourage the students to make such efforts, a Year 12 cohort visits King’s College London to learn about Rosalind and how her work helped solve the riddle of DNA structure, transforming the world.

Students visit the Cancer Centre to learn how physics and chemistry are improving medicine today. In the Life Sciences Museum, they hear talks on Rosalind’s spectacular career, how X-ray diffraction generated Photo 51, why that photo allowed Watson and Crick to guess the DNA structure, and how Maurice Wilkins spent years proving their guess correct.

Then, the students visit the Randall Centre to learn about careers in science or medicine and how our current biophysics research uses the understanding of DNA and molecular genetics to illuminate phenomena like muscle contraction, muscle growth and human frailty. The aim is for students to see first-hand how research is transforming biology and will contribute to personalized medicine.

Rosalind was trained in chemistry, but she used methods from physics to help make the greatest discovery of twentieth century biology. Today, the effects resonate through medicine, ecology, biodiversity, nanotechnology, criminology, anthropology and even history.

Her story is too often couched in terms of sexism. But that is something she herself would not have recognised, preferring to focus on problems that are more difficult but also more rewarding to solve: the mysteries of the world. She regarded scientific research not as something separate from everyday life, but as the most thrilling part of it. That is a positive message for young women (and men) in any era.

Although they worked at King's College London, Rosalind and Maurice were directly employed by the Medical Research Council Biophysics Unit and devoted themselves full time to research. As the last remaining MRC employee at King's, it gives me great pleasure to host the vibrant Grey Coat students and try to convey to them the thrill of scientific research and its importance for solving the many problems we face. It’s remarkable how acute are some of the questions students just beginning their A-level course ask; it keeps us on our toes and reminds us that fundamental scientific research really is exciting and fun."– Professor Simon M. Hughes

A reflection from Louise Berthier, year 12 student at The Grey Coat Hospital

Going to King’s College London on the Rosalind Franklin trip was absolutely a highlight of the year so far for me. Firstly, I really enjoyed seeing all the different things displayed in the museum, which we still talk about now at school. The lecture we were given on X-ray crystallography and how this helped Rosalind Franklin to discover the structure of DNA from photo 51 was amazing, introducing me to an aspect of science which I had never heard of before but am now very interested in. Furthermore, it helped explain one of the most well known photos in the world and give real meaning to the pattern on the photo.

However, the best part of the trip for me was the opportunity to talk to scientists about their work. Talking to Professor Hughes about his research into muscular conditions and ageing was fascinating. I had not realised before that you could not get a muscle cancer nor how important research into muscular conditions is. Seeing the labs, although quickly, was also very exciting, as they are somewhat more impressive than our school science labs.

Whereas the A level science curriculum can be somewhat restricting, despite being rigorous and interesting, opportunities like these to explore science beyond the curriculum are so valuable in inspiring the scientists of tomorrow. For example, this trip inspired me to reach out the Professor Hughes and ask if I could shadow him for a few days, something I might have been too shy to do beforehand, but am so excited about.

Thank you to everyone at King’s College London who made this trip possible, and in particular all the scientists who gave up their time to talk to us about their research. We all returned to school determined to work hard and pursue our interests in science to a higher level.

In this story

Simon Hughes

Simon Hughes

MRC Scientist and Professor of Developmental Cell Biology

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