The Urban Scientist

The Urban Scientist

A hip hop maven blogs on urban ecology, evolutionary biology & diversity in the sciences

Epic Science Rap Battle Sets the DNA Discovery Record Straight: Rosalind Franklin vs. Watson & Crick


Let's remember that science is a human endeavor and it's steeped in the context and sometimes messiness of the geo-socio-politico-economic backgrounds of the time and place of the work and discovery. The field of genetics has truly changed the game (of life sciences). Some of the same frustrating dilemmas affecting scientists from underrepresented groups were plaguing scientists a hundred years ago: Who gets the credit (and accolades) vs. Who does the hard work (and summarily dismissed by the history books)

Today's post was written by Dr Sam Diaz-Munoz

"It has not escaped my notice that you're a jerk!"

How a rapping school teacher and 7th graders changed my mind about one of the most celebrated quotes in scientific writing

"It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."

This is a quote from Nobel Prize winners Watson and Crick in their landmark paper describing the discovery of the structure of DNA. It is a revered quote often lauded for its elegant understatement. See, most all of the advances in genetics, sequencing, and the very idea of "it's in our DNA" comes from the discovery of the structure of DNA reported in that paper. It basically unlocked the code; the language of biology.

Today in a competitive funding climate and job market for academic science, any achievement, including some seemingly trivial ones, are trumpeted as huge breakthroughs. But the decoding of the language of life? And that's the quote?

I personally bought into this narrative and thought the understatement in the quote would be good to keep in mind as I wrote my own papers. Some rapping school kids from Oakland made me do a 180.

(These kids kilt it! ~DNLee...Did you watch the video? You gotta watch it! Ok, let me jump off of this post, now. Back to you Sam.)

"It has not escaped my notice that you’re a jerk!"

This is the line from a fictional rap battle, by Tom McFadden and the 7th graders of KIPP Bridge Charter in Oakland, California, that imagined what Rosalind Franklin would rap when addressing Watson and Crick. Rosalind who? Much has been written about Rosalind Franklin and her involvement in the discovery of the structure of DNA, but it is widely accepted that she was not properly credited for her contributions. Her untimely death also meant she could not share the Nobel Prize that Watson, Crick, and Wilkins were awarded.

What happened? Franklin had an image of DNA (among many) that was essential to piecing together its structure. She worked directly with the DNA molecule in the lab. Watson and Crick on the other hand, worked with models. They used what was known about physics and chemistry to build a hypothetical chemical structure that could then be tested against data derived from the actual molecule. Problem is, Watson and Crick were adrift with their model. Franklin knew this. They had the basics, but they got a crucial part wrong: that one about the specific base pairing. The very thing that made the code make sense. They had it wrong until they saw Franklin's photograph and unpublished, confidential data.

In this light, the original quote loses its sheen of elegant understatement. It starts to sound downright conceited. The base pairing was the very thing that almost escaped them.

Before this video I viewed the hip-hop education movement as a very cool way to get students involved in science and speak to them in a language they are familiar with. To unleash their creativity. Make them grapple with concepts. However, it is this and much more. The completely different perspective and context of the facts, re-imagined and remixed in the form of the rap battle, revealed an insight about a landmark scientific paper.

And of course, this is a lesson more about the history of science and the social/cultural context of scientists. Not an insight about science itself. But science is nurtured by diversity of ideas. And an idea, even if it comes from outside science, can help upend longstanding paradigms in the sciences. After all, aren't we supposed to be critical of our work and explore different angles and alternative explanations? Isn't that what science is all about?

The song is also reminder of the problems in science regarding the diversity of its people. Franklin, a scientist who happened to be a woman, provided the crucial insight to the structure of DNA but was relegated. We would like to think these types of problems are a thing of the past. However, women in science still face large obstacles in science today.

#Hiphoped provides us a different perspective that can not only educate our youth, but reveal new takes on old ideas. It also keeps fresh in our minds that diversity of ideas and people is crucial to advance science.

Let's recognize Rosalind Franklin!!

About the Author: Sam Díaz-Muñoz is a postdoctoral researcher studying sex, social interactions, and evolution in viruses. Sam completed his undergraduate work in biology at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez. He moved to California and received his PhD from UC Berkeley, where he studied cooperative breeding of tamarin monkeys in the forests of Panama. For his postdoctoral work, he became interested in how social evolution affected the microbial world. His work at UC San Diego focused on viral evolution, particularly how social interactions affect genetic exchange in wild virus strains. His current postdoctoral research at UC Berkeley will examine populations of bacteria and viruses on leaf surfaces to understand the ecology and evolution of virus sex. Sam is grant writer and calendar coordinator for Ciencia Puerto Rico a grassroots, non-profit organization that runs, an online social network that promotes research and science education in Puerto Rico and beyond.

All opinions and views expressed here are his own. You can follow Sam on Twitter @evolcoop.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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