Micro, Macro, Maize, McClintock

by Suzanne Summer

When Barbara McClintock received her PhD in Botany from Cornell in 1927, science was not considered an appropriate field for women, and advanced education for women was generally discouraged. When she later received the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for her discovery of mobile genetic elements, science was still male dominated, but women were becoming more welcomed. At the time she received her award, I was studying biology and engineering at a school with an approximately 4:1 male to female ratio. Despite being in an underrepresented group, her award made me realize how much easier I had it, and how much trailblazers like her had given me more opportunities and acceptance in these fields.


Ms. McClintock studied the cytogenetics of the maize plant. She did early research on chromosomal staining (allowing her to visualize the appearance of the ten maize chromosomes, represented by the "X" shapes in the center of the quilt). She studied chromosomal elements including the telomere and centromere (strands of stained DNA like these elements in the chromosomes are represented by the colorful strands down the center of the quilt). She discovered types of genetic regulation that turned certain genes on and off, and she linked regions of chromosomes to physical traits of corn kernels (multicolored maize kernels are represented in the borders of the quilt). Most famously she discovered transposition of genetic elements (the mobile genetic elements for which she was recognized, also called jumping genes or transposons).


I have represented these transposons with movements of color patterns among the center strands in the quilt. Ms. McClintock’s work was often met with skepticism—the concepts so novel that they were usually not understood or accepted. She stopped publishing her results and stopped giving lectures about these parts of her research given the reactions she encountered; she resumed sharing this work after later scientists made similar findings that validated her research. Both her discovery of what had been hidden, deep inside cells, as well as this hiding of her scientific data led me to hide some of the quilted elements on this piece behind other fabric.


The title of the quilt: Micro, Macro, Maize, McClintock speaks to her work with both tiny and more perceptible materials. The smallest item represented on the quilt is DNA (with paired nucleotides in a double helix structure) in the four corners. Next largest but still microscopic are the strands of stained DNA that are folded up into chromosomes. Macroscopic elements of the maize kernels and her name finish the quilt.