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A Historian in the Theatre: A Conversation with Daniel Czitrom

Museum Presents Pontigny Artists

2004 U.S. Women’s Open

MHC Student Portrays Pioneering Scientist on PBS’s Nova

MHC to Hold Third Annual Leadership and Career Conference

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Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives

October 17 , 2003

MHC Student Portrays Pioneering Scientist on PBS’s Nova

In May 1951, molecular biologist Rosalind Franklin produced a remarkable X-ray photograph, one that would open the door to one of the greatest discoveries in modern science. Franklin’s image led James Watson and Francis Crick to their famous discovery of the double-helix pattern of DNA, nucleic acids that are commonly referred to as the building blocks of life.

Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their discovery, and shared the award with their colleague, Maurice Wilkins, who had shown them Franklin’s image without her knowledge. Yet Franklin’s contribution went unrecognized. When she died of ovarian cancer in 1958, at age 37, she did not know that Watson and Crick had seen her photograph, and so never knew of her own crucial role in the unraveling of the double helix. Her death prevented her from being considered for the Nobel, which is not awarded posthumously.

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Gary Glassman approached Leah Serinsky ’05 this spring for her help in correcting that 50-year-old slight and elevating Franklin to her rightful place in history. Glassman’s Providence Pictures was filming the documentary Secret of Photo 51 for the Public Broadcasting System series Nova and the filmmaker had chosen Serinsky to play the role of the pioneering scientist.

“I was struck by the uncanny resemblance of Leah to Rosalind Franklin,” said Glassman, who has known Serinsky’s family for a number of years. “It’s an important film about a very important woman, and I would think that it would be an honor to portray her.”

Serinsky was initially hesitant, having had no acting experience, but eventually agreed. The filming took place over three days in a classroom at Brown University, not far from her parents’ home in Providence, Rhode Island. She recalled that the work was exhausting, with days beginning at 7 am and wrapping up around 9 pm. “I had no idea what I was in for,” she said.

“She had never done anything like this before, but she was enthusiastic and resourceful,” said Glassman, who wrote, edited, directed, and produced the film. “It was wonderful to work with her.”

Glassman was inspired to create the film because although he had heard about a number of documentary projects planned for the fiftieth anniversary of the DNA discovery, none had dealt with Rosalind Franklin and her photo. “Worse than that,” he said, “I had read interviews with Wilson where he was still downplaying Rosalind’s role.” Secret of Photo 51 had its premiere broadcast on April 22, and viewer response, Glassman said, was overwhelming. “I would hope the Rosalind Franklin story would inspire women to go into science and stand up for their rightful place.”

Serinsky, whose interests run not to the sciences but to romance languages and literature, is gratified to have played a role in bringing Franklin’s accomplishments to the fore. “I’ve gotten a great deal of satisfaction in helping people learn about Rosalind Franklin,” she said.

 

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