As part of the Science Department’s “Spotlight on Female Scientists” for Women’s History Month, students in Steven Schwartz’s seventh grade classes had a chance to listen to a presentation by the renowned molecular biologist Dr. Melanie Dobson.
One of the first women to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, Dr. Dobson completed her Ph.D. at Oxford University in 1980. Early in her career, while still at Oxford, she worked on the Human Genome Project and had the distinction of being the first person to see the DNA base sequence at the end of the human Y-chromosome.
The seventh graders, who have studied Mendelian genetics and molecular biology this year, prepared for their meeting with Dr. Dobson by researching her background, reading about telomeres (the DNA–protein structures found at both ends of each chromosome), and drafting questions to ask about her experience as a trailblazing woman in science.
While Dr. Dobson has enjoyed great success as a scientist and academic, she admits that she faced discrimination earlier in her career. Despite her strong resume, she noted, certain opportunities at Oxford were given to less qualified male candidates because she was a married woman and had children. She was once offered a prestigious position at a lab, but the offer was rescinded when she shared that she was pregnant.
The seventh graders were not surprised by her early experiences as a woman scientist, having learned about Rosalind Franklin and the minimization of her major contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA.
Back home in Halifax, Canada, where she has been a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Dalhousie University since 1993, Dr. Dobson found greater support by both women and men, the latter making up the majority of her department. In turn, she has made a point of mentoring other female scientists who have gone on to great success. Dr. Dobson was happy to share with the seventh graders that there are now many more female students to mentor!
Dr. Dobson encouraged students to use their current interests and passions as a catalyst toward future exploration. “What is it that interests you?” she asked. “If you’re interested, then you’re going to get hooked. I do this research because it’s fun. I still get so much pleasure from studying DNA.”