A Bat Mitzvah Gives Voice to a Woman in Science

While the model is generally that students learn from teachers, yesterday I was reminded that teachers learn from students as well. I had the opportunity this Shabbat to attend a bat mitzvah at Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati, where until recently I served as one of the rabbis.

The bat mitzvah student presented a research topic on the subject of Rosalind Franklin, a name I didn’t recognize. It turns out that Franklin’s important work has been under-recognized by many.

A Jewish scientist who lived from 1920-1958, Franklin did groundbreaking research on DNA that led to the understanding of DNA as a double helix.  She worked on the x-ray diffraction of images of DNA, and one of her students took what became known as “Photo 51.”  That image played a significant role in leading to the discovery of the DNA double helix.

Without her knowledge, Franklin’s colleague Wilkins shared Photo 51 with Watson and Crick, and then the three men went on to publish a series of articles in 1953 about DNA.  Franklin also published in that series of articles, but hers appeared after theirs.

Sadly, Franklin died in 1958, and it was four years later that Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize.  Nobel prizes aren’t awarded posthumously, so it is hard to know if Franklin would have also received the Prize, but many believe she wouldn’t have because of her gender.

I suppose the gender inequality that contributes to the lack of general knowledge about Franklin’s role in understanding DNA should be of no surprise, as we continue to see women in science treated differently.  Two weeks ago many of us learned about Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist who resigned as honorary professor at the University College of London after saying that female scientists cry when criticized and are a romantic distraction in the laboratory.

Not only did the bat mitzvah remind me about the importance of gender equality and teach me about an important scientist whose research changed our understanding of biology, but the service also reminded me what a bat mitzvah should be about.  A bar/bat mitzvah experience should involve more than learning Hebrew and learning facts about Judaism.  It should be an opportunity for a student to learn more about him or herself – and in the case of the bat mitzvah I attended this weekend, it rose to the top as an opportunity for a young woman to share an important message.  That student gave voice to an important woman who came before her, whose own voice was too quieted by the men around her.



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