Biography Reflections

An Evening Meditation on Maya Angelou

MayaMaya Angelou wrote about her life in several books, but we also read her heart in her expressive face. She knew the power of her voice and had pride in her many accomplishments. I was awakened to Angelou’s powerful gift when she read the inaugural poem On the Pulse of the Morning in 1993. That was the first and last time I ever bought an entire poem as a book; I read it and re-read it and sometimes it still feels new to me when I read it again. What strikes me the most when I read about Maya Angelou’s life is her fortitude. She never, never gave up. In a wonderful public interview with George Plimpton for the Paris Review, she said, “There is, I hope, a thesis in my work: we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.”

Over many coming days, there will be a great many lists of powerful quotes and tributes to this amazing artist. Tonight I would like to leave you with just three. They might not make anyone else’s top ten, but they leapt out at me. The quote on the top picture is a stanza from On the Pulse of the Morning; I believe it is worth a great deal of thought. And action. I chose that picture from the inauguration because it reminds me of that wonderful moment. The Washington Post obituary contains a fabulous gem from a speech at a conference called Families Alive at Weber State University. There are plenty of rainbows jumping out of clouds these days, but this celestial picture adds an unexpected layer to the text: MayaRainbow When I read the full transcript of the speech after I made this graphic, I discovered that the lead-in to the first line completely fits: “We know that rainbows, stars, all sorts of illuminations, comets and suns, are always in the firmament. But clouds get so low and dark that you can’t see the illumination.” I may have to make another graphic to work that in, but it’s getting late. Instead I’ll give you a quote that goes beyond pictures, from the Paris Review interview:

I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety. The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening if you’re honest and have a little courage you look at yourself and say, Hmm. I only blew it eighty-six times. Not bad. I’m trying to be a Christian and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.

Peace be with you.

Achievements Biography Scientists

Meet Mary Leakey

Google Doodle of the Day, February 6, 2013
Google Doodle of the Day, February 6, 2013

Apparently I need to bone up on my paleontology because I had no idea why the Google Doodle of the Day would feature a woman digging in the sand, pointing her trowel at footprints. A quick peek in the Doodle Gallery told me that artist Besty Bauer really cared about this person who was tremendously important for some reason, but I was still mystified. What the heck were Laetoli footprints and why were we celebrating their discovery?

I asked my husband if he had ever heard of Mary Leakey and he asked if she was related to the famous anthropologist Louis Leakey. The answer is yes, by marriage. She was a young artist with a passion for anthropology, he was a professor at Cambridge who needed a book illustrated. They fled to Africa together and married once he obtained a divorce. The rest is literally our history as a human race…

Mary’s many fossil discoveries shed light on how we evolved as a species. The Laetoli footprints strongly resemble modern human footprints and helped to establish that the ancestors of early humans learned to walk upright before their brains evolved to the present size, a matter of great debate in scientific circles. What’s more interesting is that she made so many notable discoveries as her husband’s partner while they raised three sons — in fact, their family has now dedicated three generations to the science of paleoanthropology.

I look forward to reading Virginia Morrell‘s book, Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings, so I can learn more about this fascinating woman and her impact on our world.

Achievements Biography Editor's Note

The Lady: Patience and Persistence Win the Struggle for Justice

Today happens to be the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi and so it seems appropriate to celebrate one of the fruits of his lifelong dedication to nonviolent social change. According to The Atlantic, his philosophy strongly influences Burmese member of parliament Aung San Suu Kyi and she often quotes him. Her father was the commander of the Burmese Independence Army and was assassinated when she was two. Her mother was a much loved official who eventually became ambassador to India. Inspired by her parents, Aung San Suu Kyi dedicated her life to the people of Burma and spent several years under house arrest due to her activism against the military junta. Like her mother, she is affectionately called “Daw,” a title of respect, and known throughout Burma as “The Lady” due to her grace and persistence.

As her native Burma continues its slow but definite progress towards a thriving democracy, the Nobel peace laureate has used part of her recently won freedom to tour the United States. She has persevered through decades of oppression, house arrest and political struggle in the name of her people. Her opposition to the military junta is rooted in a firm belief that “democracy offers the best balance between freedom and security,” which are both essential human rights.

You can watch part of her Congressional Gold Medal acceptance speech on C-SPAN and read more about her accomplishments and recent travels on CNN.

Achievements Biography Editor's Note

A Legacy of Laughter

Phyllis Diller left our world today at the age of 95, and we are better for having laughed with her.

After several other careers, including raising five children, she became a comic in the mid-1950s on the rising edge of the feminist movement. Until Joan Rivers came along, Diller was mostly alone among the male wolves that prowled the top stages for laughs back then. She defied every rule. At a time when most comics wore suits or at the very least button down shirts, her wild costumes and outlandish wigs made a statement. She wasn’t trying to be one of the guys; she was an uber-woman despite having “two backs” and “chicken legs.” Self-deprecating and witty, she said the things many women were thinking, and laughed along with her audiences.

Boy, did she laugh.

A brilliant gag writer, she maintained a joke file better organized than many libraries. She honed her craft constantly and let the audience be the judge of a joke. If they laughed, she kept it. If not, onto another joke. Her rat-a-tat-tat delivery came with a smile and she was proud of being able to deliver twelve jokes in one minute.

She earned every laugh.

Ok, yes, she dressed like a clown and her costume had the same counter-instinctual purpose. It made the audience drop its expectations and listen. It takes a confident woman to mock herself as relentlessly as Diller did, and smart one to mock the world around her. Diller’s daft housewife comedy wasn’t necessarily social commentary but it pushed boundaries and implied that it was ok to ask questions and forget washing the windows.

Thanks to her, women like Lily Tomlin, Gilda Radner, Whoopi Goldberg, Roseanne Barr, and Samantha Bee built their careers on being female and funny. She was known to encourage rising comics, though she never forgot that “the audience will let you know if you’re funny or not.” One of her best lines was “Aim high and you won’t shoot your foot off.”

Go ahead, laugh with her tonight. The angels are.

(Via 89.3 KPCC,

Achievements Biography Editor's Note

Wherever I Wind Up

I loved this interview with Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey about his new memoir, Wherever I Wind Up. Dickey has survived an incredible life – a dismal family life, sexual abuse, and a depressing tour through the minor leagues – and he’s fascinating to listen to. His story about surviving a near death experience inspired me because it changed his entire outlook in life and propelled him to succeed professionally. He talks about the challenges of learning to throw a knuckleball, how it impacts his catchers and why umpires might give him the benefit of the doubt when calling strikes. Dickey is currently the only professional knuckleball pitcher in the major leagues, and he hopes that others will follow in his footsteps. That’s the great baseball nerd stuff… the life stuff is even more interesting.

Side view of a knuckleball grip.
Side view of a knuckleball grip. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For Dickey, learning to throw this tricky pitch was a survival choice, the difference between a baseball career and the end of his dreams. He’s had a lot of practice with survival, starting with a childhood that included abandonment by his father, neglect by his alcoholic mother, molestation from a female babysitter, and rape by a teenage male. In our tough guy culture, few men talk openly about their struggles and their experience seeking therapy but Dickey’s conversation with Dave Davies sounded engaging and honest.

Dickey credits therapy for making him a better human being and living more authentically, thus improving his professional performance as well.

I can’t wait to read this book.

Achievements Biography

Finding Photograph 51: Rosalind Franklin & the Discovery of DNA

Photo 51 as published in Nature 171

I thought of Rosalind Franklin while reading Jennifer Haigh’s The Condition, a compelling novel about the effect of Turner syndrome on a family. Turner syndrome is caused by a chromosome aberration and that led me to wonder what ever happened to the lady scientist who famously helped James Watson and Francis Crick discover the double helix structure of DNA. Like many people, I couldn’t quite remember her name but I knew she’d done something important.

Rosalind Franklin was indeed a lady; born in 1920 into a wealthy British banking family, she had to fight to attend Cambridge and become a scientist. Her work on coal efficiency during World War II “helped launch the field of high-strength carbon fibers.” Watson and Crick were aware of her work but downplayed her contribution until recently. Sadly, she died of ovarian cancer four years before they won the Nobel Prize along with her lab rival Maurice Wilkins. Not that she was nominated…

Of course scientific discoveries build upon each other, and the quest to understand DNA actually began in 1869 with Friedrich Miescher’s discovery of nucleic acids. By the 1950s, several scientists were honing in on the actual structure of DNA. Dr. Rosalind Franklin at King’s College had refined her study of DNA strands by perfecting an x-ray technique which focused a fine beam of x-rays to reveal the water content of DNA. Watson heard her lecture about this discovery but failed to take notes. Fortunately for Watson and Crick, Wilkins shared her work without her knowledge.

I’d never known what exactly Franklin contributed to the work Watson and Crick were doing. They acknowledge her and Wilkins in their seminal 1953 Nature paper but are quite vague about why, perhaps because they didn’t want to discuss quite how much seeing her work helped. In the same issue, she and her collaborator Raymond Gosling published photograph 51, the visual impetus for Watson and Crick’s double helix theory. Wilkins published a related article as well. As happens with sports, the scientific “scorers” got all the credit while those teammates who put them in scoring position were overshadowed.

Franklin’s comparatively anonymous life is a direct counterpoint to that of Marie Curie, who received two Nobel prizes and a level of world fame rarely seen. Interestingly, however, both women accomplished their scientific goals by becoming excellent laboratory technicians; supervising assistants and writing papers while refining and improving various methodologies. Curie painstakingly isolated radium; Franklin precisely applied x-ray crystallography to reveal the structure of DNA. The sexism they faced may have compelled both to surpass the skill level of their male counterparts and lead to their crowning achievements. That they did so at a time when both were formally rejected from official academies on the basis of their sex testifies to their focus, dedication and intelligence. Franklin had earned her doctorate before Cambridge revised its discriminatory policies and retroactively awarded women bachelor’s degrees.

Franklin lived in a world that expected women to be educated but not intellectual. Knowledge was fine, exploring and expanding it was not. As a girl who solved math puzzles for fun, she probably could not imagine fitting herself into the social world of contemporaries like Pamela Digby, an intelligent British socialite also born in 1920 who changed the world through a more traditional application of her feminine gifts. The daughter of a baron, Digby lived the high life but aspired to more and achieved it through ambitious marriages, first to Winston Churchill’s son Randolph, then Broadway producer Leland Hayward and finally industrialist Averell Harriman. In 1971 she became an American citizen. Eventually, she hosted an influential Georgetown salon that supported the Democratic Party’s move to the center and the election of Bill Clinton as president. He rewarded her with an ambassadorship to France.

Yet Franklin chose a very different path of achievement. During World War II while Digby was socializing and having numerous affairs, Franklin was studying coal structure to find more efficient means of fueling the national defense. overcame those expectations and created a life that was satisfying to her intellectually and personally. A decade after her death, many friends defended her against Watson’s assertion in The Double Helix that she was a mere lab assistant who didn’t know what she was looking at. Anne Sayres wrote Rosalind Franklin and DNA to articulate the exact nature of Franklin’s work.

There are those who argue that Franklin’s contribution to the discovery of DNA was essential and others who disagree. It’s lovely to hope that if she’d been alive, she too would have been recognized by the Nobel Committee with Watson, Crick, and Wilkins. What sparks a more important discussion, however, is whether the recognition is more important than the work.

There’s something about anonymity that’s attractive in today’s hyper-celebrity world. The most confident scientists know their value without applause meters, prizes and recognition banquets. Universities and laboratories compete for their services even though they never make headlines. Working without attention allows for freedom of exploration without the pressure of expectations imposed by the outside world. Their work is respected by peers and they are ‘big fish in a small pond.’ That may be a blissful life for many, and the path that Rosalind Franklin would have chosen for herself had she survived ovarian cancer. She was wise enough to leave the poisonous atmosphere at the prestigious King’s College in London for the academic freedoms of Birkbeck College. Her work in other areas continues to influence science, and she may well have been happy for decades whether the whimsical gifts of prizes and fame were bestowed upon her or not.

And yet.

What have we lost by her anonymity? How many women haven’t gone into the sciences because there were no role models, no famous women scientists encouraging them? What discoveries haven’t been made?

It’s crucial for everyone to have role models, and for women in the sciences in particular. Over the last decade, the Royal Society has established a Rosalind Franklin medal for female scientists and the University of Health Sciences/Chicago Medical School has been renamed the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. Objective, comprehensive biographies are finally being written for general audiences as well as children. In June of 2012 Franklin’s sister, historian Jennifer Glynn, will publish a memoir that focuses on Franklin’s life and personality.

The resurgence of interest in Rosalind Franklin’s life, career and contributions comes at a time when basic science education is under siege from budget cuts despite the recognition of its importance to our future. Perhaps knowing her story will inspire teenage boys and girls who are passionate about science to pursue their interests despite all obstacles. Perhaps it will also inspire policymakers to remember that skills and intelligence require opportunity to grow. Perhaps male scientists will remember to open the door to female colleagues without outside pressure.

What’s certain is that knowing her story is better than ignoring it.

Suggested reading about Rosalind Franklin: – check out the cool video too!