Barbara McClintok, an American biologist who studied chromosomes, proved that there is more to know about corn than how much butter you should put on it.
McClintok was born on June 16, 1902, in Hartford, Connecticut. After high school, she enrolled at Cornell University in 1919 as a biology major. She received her PhD in cytology, genetics, and zoology in 1927.
During graduate school, McClintok began examining, identifying, and describing corn chromosomes in order to understand human chromosomes better. Because of her hard work and experiments, she was elected vice president of the Genetic Society of America in 1939. Two years later, McClintok moved to Long Island, New York, where she spent the rest of her professional life.
For much of her career, McClintok studied genes. Using a microscope, she isolated two genes called the “controlling elements”, which are genes that control other genes. For example, in corn, the controlling elements help regulate the pigmentation of the maize (corn). McClintok also discovered that controlling elements can move along chromosomes to different sites. These mobile elements are known as “jumping genes.” McClintok suggested that these controlling elements cause new mutations in pigmentation characteristics and that neighboring genes are affected by these changes.
McClintok's work was considered “radical” and “ahead of its time.” In fact, she was simply ignored and eventually stopped publishing papers. But she never gave up on her research. It wasn’t until the 1960’s and 1970’s that biologists confirmed the genetic information McClintok discovered was DNA. And it wasn’t until these decades that she was finally recognized for her work.
In 1983, McClintok received the ultimate recognition she deserved: she was awarded the Nobel Prize for her work in physiology. McClintok was the first woman ever to win this award alone. She is an inspiration to young girls everywhere who want to pursue a career in STEM fields!