Jane S. Richardson

Jane S. Richardson

Richardson and her protein representations. Courtesy Jane S. Richardson.

A biochemistry professor at Duke University, Jane S. Richardson (b. 1941) is best known for her amazing portraits of proteins, first published in 1981. These portraits, initially hand-drawn and now computer-painted, make sense of masses of X-ray crystallography data by showing proteins as intertwined ribbons. They demonstrate how the parts of these large molecules twist, fold, and unfold. Richardson’s graphics are the standard for depicting proteins, helping scientists understand how proteins work and how to build them.

Born in Teaneck, New Jersey, Richardson showed a great aptitude for science at an early age. In high school she placed third in the 1958 Westinghouse Science Talent Search by calculating the orbit of Sputnik, the only artificial satellite at the time, from observations on two successive nights. The Westinghouse was the nation’s top science fair, known today as the Intel Science and Engineering Fair. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Swarthmore College and master’s degrees in philosophy and in teaching from Harvard University in 1966. Finding herself unsuited for teaching high school, she went to work as an X-ray crystallographic technician, recording data in the same laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where her husband, David, was then finishing his Ph.D. in chemistry.

In 1970 the couple moved to Duke University, where David took a faculty position in the biochemistry department and Jane held a variety of “invisible” positions as a research assistant, nominally in a variety of departments due to her lack of a doctoral degree and the university’s rules, since discarded, against hiring a husband and wife in the same department. But the couple seem always to have maintained their scientific collaboration. External recognition—first by the MacArthur Foundation with a so-called “genius” award in 1985, and then by election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1991—moved Duke to grant her faculty appointments and eventually tenure in the department of biochemistry.

Using her three-dimensional pictures of proteins, she and her husband have been able to learn a great deal about factors that affect the three-dimensional shape of proteins and how, in turn, the shape affects protein behavior. Using this information, they have been able to design and make synthetic proteins that are not found in nature. These synthetic proteins tell us a great deal about how natural proteins work, and someday new synthetic proteins might act as drugs or have other medical uses.

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