WoW Blog (Woman of the Week) Blog

WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

Do you know of a great woman in engineering that should be recognized? Let us know! Submit a few paragraphs about that person and we'll add her to the blog. Please provide a citation for the material that you submit so that we can verify it. Please note - it has to be original material. We cannot publish copywritten material or bulk text taken from books or other sites (including Wikipedia).

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Woman of the Week – Maxine Singer

Posted April 13, 2009 8:16 AM by Sharkles

Maxine Singer is known for her contributions in deciphering the human genetic code, as well as her advocacy for the proper usage of recombinant DNA.

Maxine Singer was born on February 15, 1931 in New York City. She attended high school in Brooklyn, where her chemistry teacher inspired her to pursue a career in science. Upon graduation, Singer attended Swarthmore College, where she initially majored in chemistry but then switched to biology. Although few women were accepted as scientists in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Maxine Singer recalled that she and her friends were treated equals at Swarthmore. She graduated with high honors in 1952.

Researching Nucleic Acids

Maxine Singer then studied at Yale University, where she earned a Ph.D. in 1957. During her time at Yale, she researched protein chemistry under Joseph Fruton, a biochemist who encouraged her to specialize in nucleic acids. According to Fruton, this field was the future of biochemistry.

With assistance from one of her professors, Singer served as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1956. During her time at NIH, Singer's work on RNA synthesis allowed her to produce synthetic nucleotides that were used previously in Marshall Nirenberg's experiments, studies that established the triplet nature of genetic code. Two years later, Maxine Singer received a research staff appointment to work on enzymes and cellular biochemistry.

Public Advocacy

When a discussion of ethics and safety concerning the manipulation of genetic material surfaced in 1973, Singer helped the NIH form guidelines for conducting such research. She also worked to clarify potential benefits, while cautioning against using recombinant gene technology in terms that laymen could understand. Maxine Singer knew that recombinant DNA technology would add insights to the study of diseases and the understanding of incurable illnesses, but she also understood that genetic engineering raised moral issues.

Because of her attention to these moral issues, Maxine Singer became a chairperson for the 1973 Gordon Conference on Nucleic Acids, where public health risks were discussed. In 1974, she became Chief of the NIH's section of Nucleic Acid Enyzymology, Division of Cancer Biology and Diagnosis at the National Cancer Institute (DCBD).

Singer also helped organize the 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA, which resulted in guidelines for dealing with the unknown risks of the technology.

From Carnegie Institution to National Cancer Institute

In 1980, Maxine Singer became chief of the DCBD's Laboratory of Biochemistry. In 1988, she became president of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. She held this latter position until 2002.

Maxine Singer has spent her career working as a scientist and public advocate. She continues to conduct genetics research for the National Cancer Institute as a scientist emeritus. She has also been involved in programs to improve the quality of science education for disadvantaged children.

Singer also continues to speak out about issues related to genetic manipulation. She has publicly supported the United States' investment in the human genome project.



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