My Top Ten Scientists
SF author and biochemist
Carole Stivers cites the scientists born
in the 20th century who have inspired her
When I was asked to come up with a “top ten” list of scientists who have inspired me, I wondered, “Where do I start?” Within minutes though, I was asking myself, “How do I stop?” And so, I will list here the people who came to mind immediately—and offer a silent nod to those who came to mind after these first ten!
First, thanks to my own personal mentors: Thomas O. Baldwin (during his stint at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, I was Tom’s first graduate student to obtain a Ph.D.); and A. C. Matin at Stanford University (I was also AC’s first postdoctoral student at Stanford). Both of these fine scientists are now my lifelong friends.
But now, please allow me to name another picks, my top ten proper. After listing them out, I realised that my “top ten” fell largely into four categories:
Those Who Made Science Fun:
As a graduate student, I was drawn to the University of Illinois by the spirit of camaraderie that pervaded their School of Chemical Sciences—collaboration, fun, and a dedication to teaching and mentoring. Long days and nights in the lab were offset by comic relief and solid moral support. There were so many professors who stood out for me in this regard. But the king of them all was Lowell P. Hager, then Head of the Department of Biochemistry. Dr. Hager was not only a capable leader and scientist, but also the proud sponsor of student parties, skits, and bawdy sing-alongs. Mourned at his passing in 2014, Dr. Hager instilled in all of us a lifelong love of learning as something that could be enjoyable and rewarding.
Those Who Thought Outside the Box:
It’s simple to fall into the trap of “me too” science, riding on the coattails of accepted themes and theories. I admire those who step outside the norm, and especially those who risk their reputations in doing so.
In 1977, Carl Woese’s redrawing of the taxonomic tree to include a third domain, the Archaea—a new mapping based on the phylogenetic taxonomy of 16S ribosomal RNA that he also pioneered—took the microbiology world by storm. Picked apart at first, this work was later hailed as some of the most influential of all time. I was fortunate to be at the University of Illinois when Dr. Woese was still a professor there, and the Archaea figure prominently in my novel The Mother Code, as they continue to do at the University. I also share his fascination with the evolutionary history of life on Earth, a theme I want to delve into more in my own writing.
Another scientist who suffered direct challenges to his ideas but stuck to his guns was Stanley B. Prusiner. Following on the ground-breaking work of J. S. Griffith and his colleagues, Prusiner was the first to isolate the unique non-cellular infectious particle, composed entirely of protein, that he called the prion. His landmark work at UCSF, ongoing when I first came to California, helped elucidate the causative agents of deadly diseases like scrapie and Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, and resulted in his winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1997.
And then there’s Linus Pauling. I actually met Dr. Pauling during my years at Stanford, when a friend of mine was living at the home of his son. By then Linus was in his 80’s, his beloved wife Ava having tragically passed away. He’d somewhat sacrificed his excellent reputation due to his belief in limited eugenics to control the spread of hereditary disease, and his quest to prove the value of megavitamin therapy. But his groundbreaking work on the nature of the chemical bond, and his steadfast political stand against nuclear proliferation, rendered him a giant in our eyes.
Those Who Work to Make Physics Accessible:
I’m a big fan of the physical sciences, and my own husband is a physicist. But somehow, I glaze over whenever things get too “physical.”
So, it’s important to me that my earliest love of science was inspired by astrophysicist Carl Sagan, a man who graced my childhood television screen on a weekly basis with his mantra of “billions and billions,” filling my head with dreams of the cosmos.
Another physicist I love reading these days is Carlo Rovelli—a brilliant communicator and my favorite companion when navigating the vagaries of space-time.
Those Who Made It Okay to be a Woman in STEM:
And last but not least: the ladies—those no-nonsense women upon whom many of my own female characters are based.
First, of course, comes Rosalind Franklin, whose unsung (at the time) work on X-ray diffraction images of DNA made it possible for her male colleagues, Crick, Watson, and Wilkins, to run off with the Nobel Prize.
A woman who did better for herself on that score was Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, whose development of the radioimmunoassay made her the first American-born woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Dr. Yalow famously earned her Ph.D. in Physics at the University of Illinois during World War II, offered a spot in the class largely because all the men had gone off to war and the University wanted to avoid being shut down. Throughout my years working in medical diagnostics, I was constantly reminded of her contributions to my field. And I can easily forgive her for her conservative views on women in the workplace—views that were only an unfortunate sign of her times.
Then come the mathematicians—Katherine Johnson, whose selfless contribution to NASA’s space programme was featured in the 2016, short-listed Hugo Award film Hidden Figures, and Grace Hopper, a pioneer of computer programming and the first to envision and implement a compiler for translating simple English commands into machine language. The diminutive Rear Admiral Hopper also first coined the terms “bug” and “debug.” Come to think of it, she too embodied the definition of “thinking outside the box”!
Carole Stivers, was born in East Cleveland, Ohio. She received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She went on to post-doctoral work at Stanford University before launching a career in medical diagnostics. She now lives in California, where she’s combined her love of writing and her fascination with the possibilities of science to create her first novel, The Mother Code. She can be found online at www.carolestivers.com and at facebook.com/CaroleStiversAuthor.
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