What if Rosalind Franklin were there--having fun with Watson & Crick's Famous Picture in a Freshman Genetics Seminar.
Subject: Molecular genetics (Conferences, meetings and seminars)
Author: Jensen, Murray
Pub Date: 02/01/2011
Publication: Name: The American Biology Teacher Publisher: National Association of Biology Teachers Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 National Association of Biology Teachers ISSN: 0002-7685
Issue: Date: Feb, 2011 Source Volume: 73 Source Issue: 2
Persons: Named Person: Franklin, Rosalind; Franklin, Rosalind
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 259466270

Students have been playing with famous images for almost as long as photography has existed (Figures 1 and 2). They've drawn mustaches on Mona Lisa replicas, pretended to be George Washington crossing the Delaware, and posed like Napoleon. The image of James Watson and Francis Crick showing off their new double-helix model of DNA is famous in biology. It serves as a symbol of the beginning of molecular genetics and graces the pages of countless textbooks and Web sites.

But most biologists recognize that something is awry in this picture. We now know that those early days were full of politics and shenanigans (see, e.g., Sayer, 1975; Watson, 1981). Shouldn't there be a few other scientists in that now iconic image?

In a freshman seminar course titled "The Science and Politics of Genetics and Reproduction," we attempt to recreate that famous photograph, but with a twist: What if Rosalind Franklin broke into the photo?

Freshman seminar courses at the University of Minnesota are far different from the large lectures typically endured by first-year students. Enrollment is limited to 15, and discussions and group work are heavily emphasized. This particular seminar uses topics from genetics and reproduction to stimulate thought and discussion. We discuss current topics like "Octomom" and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. We also use Aldous Huxley's classic text, Brave New World, to set the stage for discourse on the past, present, and future of birth control and genetic predestination. Learning outcomes for the course focus not only on scientific knowledge, but also on the rich personal history surrounding critical scientific discoveries.

For example, the first day of class includes a presentation on the basic structure of DNA, which is supplemented with photographs of the key scientists involved (e.g., Watson, Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and, of course, Franklin). In the second class meeting, the students use K'NEX brand toy construction kits to build DNA models and then recreate the famous picture (see Figures 1 and 2). The students are randomly assigned to groups of three or four. They spend a few minutes getting to know each other by answering questions on topics like intended major, favorite type of music, opinion of dormitory food, or favorite book. While they are engaged in their introductions, the following instructions are posted on the board. "Build a doublehelix model of DNA like that shown in this famous picture of Watson and Crick. Next, compose a similar picture, but include Rosalind Franklin, with special attention to her opinion of Watson and Crick's claim to the discovery."

So, we re-enact the famous picture, with one important change: What would Franklin be doing in the picture? The students talk about the image composition as they build their DNA models, and we take pictures upon completion. No grades are assigned for the 30- to 45-minute project, but the pictures are shown at the next class meeting as we review the history of the DNA model.

Students' reactions to the activity are very positive. Along with getting to know two or three other people in the class, they also learn about the rich history behind the famous photo.



DOI 10.1525/abt.2011.73.2.10


Sayre, A. (1975). Rosalind Franklin and DNA. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Watson, J. (1981). The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. New York. NY: W. W. Norton.

MURRAY JENSEN is Associate Professor of Teaching and Learning at the University of Minnesota, 104 Burton Hall, 178 Pillsbury Drive S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455; e-mail: msjensen@umn.edu.
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