Rutgers scientist honored for DNA work

In 1944, before anyone knew what DNA looked like, a young graduate student sought to learn more about genetic mutations by irradiating 50,000 bacteria with ultraviolet light.

Most of the cells in Evelyn M. Witkin's petri dishes died in the process.

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Evelyn M. Witkin will share a Lasker award, often a harbinger of an even bigger honor.

But four were somehow resistant, and her subsequent insights would prove fundamental in helping the world understand how living things protect themselves from radiation and DNA damage.

On Tuesday, Witkin, 94, was honored with a prestigious Lasker award for her long career, the last decades of which took place at Rutgers University.

The Princeton resident is sharing the Lasker Foundation's $250,000 prize for basic medical research with Harvard University's Stephen J. Elledge, who studies DNA repair in humans. The two will be honored at a Sept. 18 ceremony in New York, along with two other recipients of Lasker awards, including the group Doctors Without Borders.

In a conference call Tuesday, Witkin recalled those early experiments with a General Electric germicidal UV lamp, when she was in her early 20s at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. Unbeknownst to her, the United States was working on the nuclear bombs that would be used against Japan.

"I didn't realize why some of the physicists who knew about my discovery were so interested," Witkin said.

She went on to propose that certain bacteria could survive radiation because they activated an enzyme that was able to copy damaged DNA, inserting a random building block to fill in gaps.

This hypothesis was among several of hers that were proven correct when experimental techniques eventually caught up - sometimes decades after the fact, said the University of Pennsylvania's Donna George, who studied under Witkin at Rutgers.

"She has this ability to see into the heart of the matter," said George, an associate professor of genetics at Penn's Perelman School of Medicine.

The Lasker is often a harbinger of even greater acclaim, with 86 recipients also earning a Nobel Prize.

This year's Lasker in clinical research is going to James P. Allison, chair of immunology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, who studies the body's disease-fighting responders known as T-cells.

The Lasker-Bloomberg award for public service is going to Doctors Without Borders, known internationally as Médecins Sans Frontières, for its work in fighting Ebola and other global health emergencies.

Witkin retired from Rutgers in 1991 but retains the title of professor emerita and maintains close contact with the research community. She urged Tuesday that the United States devote more funding to basic research.

"You have to really show that something works before you can even ask for funding," she said. "A lot of really promising directions for research go down the drain."

Witkin, a Manhattan native, was an academic standout from an early age, skipping several grades and starting high school at 12. She went to New York University at 16, where she has described herself as having had "radical" political leanings - on one occasion earning a suspension.

NYU had agreed to keep its black athletes at home any time the school traveled for games at certain Southern universities, she said. So she and others circulated petitions calling for an end to the policy.

Witkin and six others were suspended for three months as a result, so she was unable to graduate with her class in 1941, she said. Originally planning to work at NYU after graduation, she went instead to graduate school at Columbia - a switch for which she became grateful because Columbia had ties to Cold Spring Harbor, site of her early breakthroughs.

It was an era when there were few female scientists, yet Witkin said her male colleagues were welcoming both in word and practice.

Concerned about her schedule when pregnant with her first child, Witkin sought out Vannevar Bush, head of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, which then oversaw Cold Spring Harbor's genetics program.

"I asked him timidly if I could take some time off," she recalled Tuesday. "He wanted to know what I needed to make it work for me."

The result was a "generous" amount of maternity leave, followed by a flexible, part-time work arrangement that lasted six years, she said.

That first child, Joe Witkin, said Tuesday that he and his brother, Andrew, grew up "embedded" in the world of science because of their mother and also their father, Herman Witkin, a research psychologist who died in 1979.

He said his mother would bring home petri dishes from work so the boys could conduct experiments. One involved simply leaving the cover off sterile dishes for 15 or 20 seconds to see if that was long enough for some mold spores to land on the surface and later multiply. It was.

That experience has had a lasting impact on Joe Witkin's kitchen habits, he said.

"If I see a cover off a dish [of food], to this day I still put it back on," said Witkin, a retired emergency-room physician and also a founding member of the musical group Sha Na Na.

Evelyn Witkin had lasting impacts on her graduate students as well, recalled Penn's George.

Witkin insisted that scientists should learn to write clearly, and required all her grad students to read that well-known manual of English language, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.

In her retirement, Witkin has explored connections between science and literature in the Victorian era, finding that poet Robert Browning was inspired by some of the same writings as the father of evolution: Charles Darwin.


tavril@phillynews.com

215-854-2430 @TomAvril1