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The Maxine Singer Papers

Biographical Information

[Maxine Singer]. [ca. 1963].
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Over the course of a career spanning more than six decades, Maxine Singer has been a pioneering molecular biologist, an influential science administrator, and a leader in science policy and advocacy. She has championed the cause of women and minorities in science, promoted equal access to postgraduate training and career opportunities, and has helped build innovative programs to improve science education in public schools. She has urged scientists to exercise their ethical and political responsibilities in society, to bring to bear scientific perspectives on such issues as genetic engineering and the safety of genetically modified organisms, evolution and the origins of life, space exploration, and the freedom of intellectual inquiry.

Maxine Frank Singer was born February 15, 1931, in New York City. Educated in the Brooklyn public schools, she has said that her interest in science reached back "as far as I can remember." An inspiring high-school chemistry teacher encouraged that interest and persuaded Singer to study chemistry at Swarthmore College, where she earned an A.B. with high honors in 1952. Neither academia nor industry were welcoming to women scientists at the time, but at Swarthmore Singer found a supportive group of female science majors, and an encouraging faculty. However, she did have to fight the college on one point: at the time, chemistry majors could chose minors in physics or mathematics but not in biology, a field that was becoming more and more interesting to Singer. She challenged the restriction, and prevailed. (A few years later, her friend David Baltimore, the 1975 Nobel Laureate, fought and won the same battle at Swarthmore.)

Singer received her doctorate in biochemistry from Yale University in 1957. Yale was also unusually hospitable to female scientists and adviser Joseph S. Fruton, recalled Singer, "hardly noticed whether you were a man or a woman." Although her dissertation dealt with protein chemistry, Fruton urged Singer to specialize in nucleic acid research, a then obscure field that, following James Watson and Francis Crick's elucidation of the double-helical structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in 1953, would move to the forefront of biochemical research during the next decade.

One of the few U.S. scientists then studying nucleic acid chemistry was Leon Heppel at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. In 1956, Singer joined Heppel's Laboratory of Biochemistry in the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases (later the National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism, and Digestive Diseases, or NIAMDD) as a postdoctoral fellow (although she had not yet received her doctorate). She made lifelong friends among the small group of early nucleic acid researchers, including Marianne Grunberg-Manago, Nancy Nossal, as well as Heppel himself.

Singer received an NIH research staff appointment two years later. Her husband Daniel Morris Singer, an attorney, had no trouble launching a career in Washington as well, and the area became home to them and their four children. Singer spent seventeen years (1958-1975) as Research Biochemist at NIAMDD. In 1975, she joined the National Cancer Institute (NCI) as chief of the Nucleic Acid Enzymology Section in the Laboratory of Biochemistry. She rose to chief of the Laboratory of Biochemistry in 1980, a position in which she oversaw the work of fifteen research groups.

Singer's own work encompassed both biochemistry and molecular biology, including RNA synthesis, the role of enzymes in DNA and RNA synthesis and metabolism, genetic recombination in defective viruses, and the structure of the DNA-protein complex called chromatin. In the early 1960s, she helped her NIAMDD colleague Marshall Nirenberg decipher the genetic code by supplying him with synthetic RNA molecules of known nucleotide sequence that made it possible to establish that genetic information is written in a three-letter code. During the 1980s, Singer turned her attention to a large family of repeated DNA sequences called LINEs (long interspersed nucleotide elements): mobile genetic elements which can jump from place to place and insert themselves at many locations on chromosomes in mammalian cells, sometimes inducing genetic mutations that cause disease.

Because her undergraduate and graduate institutions had been unusually supportive of female scientists, and because she easily found employment at a welcoming institution (the NIAMDD--not all of NIH was equally welcoming to women), Singer did not have to grapple with the difficulties faced by other women scientists during the 1950s and 1960s. As she later told the historian Horace Judson, "I don't think I would have known even if the bias existed. It was not a subject we thought about or discussed . . . A lot of the behavior that we simply accepted as 'normal' would today, quite properly, be seen as biased and unacceptable." This sanguine view was shattered in the mid-1960s, after she had become an independent investigator and had difficulty recruiting postdoctoral researchers. Her lab chief explained forthrightly that although the department received a steady stream of applicants, none of them wanted to work with a woman for fear that it would hinder their professional advancement. "No matter what I tell them about you and no matter how I show them how exciting the work is, they just . . . won't do it." As a result, Singer became an outspoken advocate of women in science.

In 1973, Singer served as chairman of the Gordon Conference on Nucleic Acids, where concerns about the potential health and environmental effects of newly-developed recombinant DNA technologies were first raised. She helped organize the landmark Asilomar Conference in February 1975, at which scientists agreed to impose restrictions on recombinant DNA research, and to develop a framework for removing these restrictions as knowledge of the science advanced. For the next ten years, Singer remained a leading voice in the vigorous debate over genetic engineering as a member of NIH advisory committees on recombinant DNA and as an expert witness before Congress. She has been a media commentator on matters of science and society, including the need for public investment in the human genome project, the uses of genetic engineering in agriculture and medicine, and the relationship between religion and evolutionary science.

In 1988, Singer was elected president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, one of the nation's preeminent private research organizations in biology, astronomy, and the earth sciences. Among her major achievements were the creation of a new department of global ecology, the installation of the twin Magellan telescopes at a Carnegie observatory in Chile, and the creation of science education programs for students and teachers from the Washington, DC, public schools. During her first decade at Carnegie, she retained her position as scientist emeritus at the National Cancer Institute, spending two days a week on her research there. Singer retired from the Carnegie Institution in 2002.

Singer's many honors include election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1978), the National Academy of Sciences (1979), and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (1986), and honorary degrees from Brandeis and Harvard Universities. In 1988, Singer received the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award, the highest honor given to a civil servant. In 1992, she was awarded the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest scientific honor, in recognition of her "outstanding scientific accomplishments and her deep concern for the societal responsibility of the scientist." In 2007, the National Academy of Sciences recognized her with its Public Welfare Medal "for providing inspired and effective leadership in matters of science and its relationship to education and public policy." Singer was a Fellow (trustee) of Yale Corporation from 1975 to 1990, and has been a member of the Board of Governors and Scientific Advisory Council of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, since 1978.

Singer has written over a hundred scientific articles as well as several books. Along with co-author Paul Berg, she published Genes and Genomes (1991), a college textbook for students of molecular biology; Dealing with Genes (1993), intended to inform a wider readership about advances in modern genetics; and George Beadle: An Uncommon Farmer (2003), a biography of the geneticist and Nobel Laureate. Singer and Berg felt that Beadle's role in ushering in the age of molecular genetics was not appreciated by contemporary scientists who nevertheless took his central discovery--that genes guide the production of proteins--for granted. The authors were convinced that by telling the stories of the pioneers of molecular genetics, they would help both scientists and the public deepen their understanding of the science.

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