Rosalind Franklin was a groundbreaking scientist whose story is tied to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. Franklin and her Ph.D. student used x-ray technology to photograph DNA that showed the molecule’s structure.
However, when two other well-known scientists published a paper about the double-helix findings, they never gave Franklin credit for her contributions. Those scientists – Crick and Watson – went on to win a Nobel Prize. Franklin was never acknowledged.
While this story is well-known, Rosalind Franklin did much more than DNA research. Many scientists specialize in one field, but Franklin’s research included biology, chemistry, and physics. She studied coal, DNA, and viruses that caused harm to humans and plants. Her thorough work and the practical applications of her findings earned her an international reputation amongst her fellow scientists.
Unfortunately, Franklin died at the age of 37 of ovarian cancer. Her brief life made a lasting impact on the sciences and people’s everyday lives. Franklin used many thinking strategies to earn her reputation across fields, which we can learn to emulate.
This article is part of the Brilliant Thinkers series, which explores the thought processes, working habits, and decision-making principles applied by intellectuals who profoundly impacted the world with their discoveries and the way they challenged the status quo.
Rosalind Franklin’s thinking strategies
Rosalind Franklin has accomplished so much during her short life, there are many strategies we can extract from her accomplishments. Let’s explore three of those lessons and how we can apply them to our everyday lives and work.
1. Aim for practical innovation. Franklin always wanted her work to have practical applications, not just sit in a lab or a journal that few people would read. During World War II, Franklin worked at the British Coal Utilization Research Association and studied the porosity of coal. At first glance, that topic may seem a little dry. But her research allowed British troops to estimate fuel performance in their vehicles. Her findings also helped improve the soldiers’ gas masks. The gas masks had activated charcoal filters to protect the soldiers, but Franklin’s work increased their effectiveness.
Another example comes from her virus research. Franklin became an expert in creating clear x-ray diffraction images of different viruses. These images paved the way for scientists to break the genetic code and use DNA sequencing to understand viruses. These methods are still used today to investigate viruses such as COVID-19.
2. Be a global connector. Not only did Franklin want to find practical applications for her work, but she also understood the importance of sharing that work with others. For her, that meant working with partners from across the globe and sharing her work at international scientific conferences, which she tried to attend as many as possible.
3. Explore your passions. Franklin never limited herself by studying only biology or only chemistry. Her work across disciplines allowed her to impact many different fields. She also highly valued having hobbies, and would spend her free time playing sports, sewing, and traveling.
How to think like Rosalind Franklin
One of the keys to emulating Rosalind Franklin is to broaden your impact. Franklin never limited herself to a single subject and made incredible impacts on several fields, including energy and medicine. How can you use your talents, expertise, and experience to impact multiple domains?
For example, say you are a marketing expert. Perhaps you can volunteer to write marketing materials for a charity organization close to your heart or offer to help them with data analysis. If you are an online course creator, maybe you can brainstorm ways to convert your educational content into a book. The possibilities are endless.
Another important strategy you can borrow from Franklin is to proactively get connected. We no longer need to travel worldwide like Franklin to have a global impact. Social media platforms can help you find potential collaborators and international audiences for your work. There are also many groups whose goals are to foster connections between professionals with similar interests across the globe. Don’t be shy, join one of them and become an active participant.
Finally, stay curious! Not everything has to be about work. Franklin followed her passions in what she studied and how she spent her leisure time. What are some things you are interested in learning about or experiencing that are unrelated to your work life? Setting aside time for reading, listening to podcasts, even checking out YouTube videos are a great way to fulfill your curiosity and enrich your life with new knowledge.
Rosalind Franklin made significant contributions to science that paved the way for the innovations of today. Her unbounded curiosity had a global impact while still making time to enjoy the activities that she loved. The lessons we learn from her life should encourage us to pursue our interests, seek connections beyond our borders, and consider the ways we can broaden our impact.