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Women in STEM - Barbara McClintock

Considered radical ideas at the time, the work that Barbara McClintock did in the field of genetic research paved the way to our understanding of DNA today.

Born in 1902, Barbara was originally named Eleanor, but her parents decided it was far too “delicate” for her, and decided on the name Barbara. She was very independent and often described as “solitary.” In high school, Barbara discovered her love of science, and decided to study agriculture at Cornell University. Her mother was against this idea, because she believed it would make Barbara unsuitable for marriage. Luckily for the rest of us, Barbara’s father decided at the very last minute to let her to go.


Barbara received her Bachelor of Science degree in Botany in 1923. She then went on to conduct genetics research for her doctorate, earned in 1927. It was during this time that Barbara founded a group dedicated to cytogenetics in maize (corn).


As a part of this group’s work, Barbara was instrumental in discovering “chromosomal crossover” and the recombination of some of the genetic traits in corn. This led to Barbara publishing the first genetic map of maize in 1931 - This was 20 years before the mapping of what we know today as the “double helix” of DNA.


Perplexed by why chromosomal crossover happened in the first place, Barbara then discovered that genes could be mobile within their structure, not entirely fixed, as once was believed. These "jumping genes" within the genetic system are called transposons. Some 30 years later, it would be discovered that many other organisms, including humans, also have transposons within their genetic structures.


In 1970, Barbara McClintock became the first woman to win the National Medal of Science, and in 1983, she became the only woman to date to receive an unshared Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.


For even more information on Barbara:




And you can also watch this YouTube video:



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