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Maxine Singer

Maxine F. Singer (1931 )

“I’ve been a part of an extraordinary time in biology. There hasn’t been a day when I’ve wanted to do anything else.”
–Maxine F. Singer

National Medal of Science (NMS) recipient in 1992 “for her outstanding scientific accomplishments and her deep concern for the societal responsibility of the scientist.”

Maxine F. Singer was born to first generation Americans in Brooklyn, N.Y. Singer, who credits a high-school chemistry teacher with inspiring her to pursue science, studied biology and chemistry at Swarthmore College and earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Yale University in 1957.

When Singer’s husband, a lawyer, found work in Washington, D.C., Singer inquired about a position at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She joined Leon Heppel’s NIH laboratory at the National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism, and Digestive Diseases as a postdoctoral fellow, and continued on as a researcher until 1979.

At the Arthritis Institute, Singer and Heppel conducted early research on the chemical structure and synthesis of RNA and DNA, using enzymes to construct experimental RNA. Their work, which came on the heels of James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, made it possible for J. Heinrich Matthaei and fellow NMS recipient Marshall Nirenberg to decipher the genetic code in the early 1960s. Singer described the atmosphere at NIH during this time period as one of large-scale growth and collaboration.

“It was very exciting, it was very collegial, there was no hint of competition for anything because there was no need,” she said. For 19 years, Singer belonged to a journal club that Heppel had helped start in the mid-1940s at the Institute, where members would meet for lunch five days a week to discuss research and teach each other about their areas of expertise.

After over two decades at NIH, Singer left the agency to head the Laboratory of Biochemistry at the National Cancer Institute in 1980. Eight years later, she became president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, where she oversaw development of the organization’s global ecology department at Stanford University and established science and mathematics education initiatives, including enrichment programs for Washington, D.C., students and professional development for public school teachers.

Singer also began speaking out against gender discrimination in science after discovering that postdoctoral students were choosing not to work with her because she was a woman. Singer, who had previously experienced supportive environments at Swarthmore and Yale, as well as at the Arthritis Institute, was troubled by the discrimination and assumed a new role as a champion for female scientists.

One of Singer’s most significant achievements has been as a tireless advocate for socially responsible science. Work on genetic manipulation was met with great controversy in the early 1970s, as those opposed to the research raised concerns about its implications for safety and ethics.

Singer helped organize the 1975 Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, Calif., where scientists, journalists and lawyers--including Singer’s husband--gathered to develop strategies for predicting and avoiding hazards, as well as methods for raising social awareness of the utility of recombinant DNA research. Later, Singer chaired the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy and published several books intended to inform the public about advances in modern genetics. Singer continues to speak out about the need for greater public understanding of scientific research.

“Science is not an inhuman or superhuman activity,” she said. “It’s something that humans invented, and it speaks to one of our great needs--to understand the world around us.”

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