Interview: Nina Fedoroff on Barbara McClintock

Esteemed scientist and Carnegie alumna Nina Fedoroff talks about her late colleague Barbara McClintock's groundbreaking work on jumping genes.
Barbara McClintock working with maize in the lab.

Carnegie geneticist Barbara McClintock made several groundbreaking discoveries about chromosomes and is best known for her discovery of transposable elements, or "jumping genes" in maize. This breakthrough, which earned McClintock a Nobel prize in 1983, led to dramatic advances in understanding infectious disease and evolution.

We sat down with National Medal of Science laureate Nina Fedoroff, a former Carnegie Staff Scientist, to discuss the profound significance of McClintock's work.

The wind behind the sails of evolution | Nina Fedoroff on Barbara McClintock

Fedoroff, herself an esteemed figure in the field of plant biology, also discussed McClintock's insights into genetic processes and how they inspired her own passion for unraveling the mysteries of plant biology. 

Although McClintock's work was eventually recognized with the scientific community's highest honors, it took many years for her brilliance to be recognized. When Fedoroff first met her, McClintock's work was largely overlooked by her peers. Despite this, McClintock was never deterred from her investigations, saying: "If you know you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can turn you off... no matter what they say.”

While a postdoc at Carnegie, Fedoroff was involved in determining the nucleotide sequence of the first complete gene. Later, after meeting McClintock, she developed an interest in studying jumping genes at the molecular level, which she was able to pursue when she was offered a Staff Scientist position by the late Don Brown. Her contributions were later recognized with a National Medal of Science by President George W. Bush. 

Nina Fedoroff: How Barbara McClintock inspired me
Nina Federoff, a former Staff Scientist at Carnegie Science's Department of Embryology and National Medal of Science recipient, recounts an encounter with Carnegie's Barbara McClintock and reflects on her influence and on Federoff's own career trajectory in molecular biology.