2004 ADLM Lectureship Award
Maxine Frank Singer, PhD, is a product of the New York City public schools and graduated from Swarthmore College (AB, 1952, with high honors) and Yale University (PhD in biochemistry, 1957). She joined the NIH as a postdoctoral fellow in 1956 and received a research staff appointment 2 years later. From 1980 to 1987, she was Chief of the Laboratory of Biochemistry at the National Cancer Institute, where she led 15 research groups engaged in various biochemical investigations. She became President of the Carnegie Institution in 1988 and retains her association with the National Cancer Institute as Scientist Emeritus.
Dr. Singer’s research contributions have ranged over several areas of biochemistry and molecular biology, including chromatin structure, the structure and evolution of defective viruses, and enzymes that work on DNA and its complementary molecule, RNA. Around 1960 she collaborated intensely with her NIH colleague Marshall Nirenberg in the elucidation of the genetic code. In recent years, her foremost contributions have been in studies of a large family of repeated DNA sequences called LINES—sequences interspersed many times in mammalian DNA. She and her coworkers have been particularly interested in the LINE-1 sequence, which is repeated thousands of times in human DNA. LINE-1, she early concluded, is capable of insertion into new places on chromosomal DNA, and researchers elsewhere later found that LINE-1 insertions into a gene whose product is required for blood clotting are associated with cases of hemophilia. Believing that the mechanism of LINE-1 transposition might have broad significance for understanding genetic diseases, Dr. Singer and her colleagues have concentrated their experiments on learning how LINE-1 elements move.
Throughout her career, Dr. Singer has taken leading roles influencing and refining the nation’s science policy, often in realms having social, moral, or ethical implications. As a relatively young professional in 1967, she interpreted in the pages of Science the exciting experiments by Arthur Kornberg and colleagues synthesizing biologically active DNA in vitro—now seen as an early indicator of recombinant gene technology. The experiments, she predicted, “bring closer the day when the ability to manipulate genetic material can be used for improving the life of all humans”.
Her involvement in ethical issues arose when she served as co-chair of the 1973 Gordon Conference, where early concerns about risks in recombinant DNA research were raised. She was an organizer of the famous 1975 Asilomar Conference and was one of five signers of the summary statement of the Asilomar report, which drew up guidelines for recombinant DNA research. The report acknowledged the enormous apparent potential of recombinant DNA technology in molecular biology but noted the limited knowledge in 1975 of the potential biohazards. By recommending resumption of recombinant research but under very cautious safeguards, the report established the framework for the conduct of research and the gradual removal of restrictions as understanding grew in future years.
Among countless other roles in serve to science and humankind, Dr. Singer has, since 1978, been a member of the Board of Governors and Scientific Advisory Council, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel. She was chairperson of the editorial board of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from 1985 to 1988. She is currently a member of The Human Genome Organization and a member of the Board of Directors of Johnson & Johnson. She served as a trustee of Yale (University) Corporation from 1975 to 1990 and as a director of the Whitehead Institute from 1985 to 1994. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1979 and to membership in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1986. Her several awards for public service include the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award, awarded in January 1988 by President Reagan. In 1992 she received the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor bestowed by the President of the United States, “for her outstanding scientific accomplishments and her deep concern for the societal responsibility of the scientist”. She has received honorary degrees from Brandeis University, Dartmouth College, Williams College, New York University, Swarthmore College, Harvard University, Yale University, and others.
As president of the Carnegie Institution from 1988 to 2002, Dr. Singer led the biologists, astronomers, and earth scientists of the Institution’s six scientific departments. Recent discoveries by Carnegie scientists having major influences on research worldwide include metallic transitions in hydrogen at ultrahigh pressure (by scientists of the Geophysical Laboratory), insights into protein regulation of gene expression (at the Department of Embryology), mantle flow underneath the South American continent and the associated kinetics of the deep-seated continent (at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism), definitive distance to M100, a galaxy more distant than any similarly measured (by a team led by an astronomer at the Carnegie Observatories), and the plastic-making potential of genetically altered plants (by the director of the Department of Plant Biology). While guiding the Institution in its scientific research and postgraduate education, Singer led a $50 million capital campaign that financed major renovations at the Carnegie campuses and Carnegie’s share in the building of two giant 6.5-meter optical telescopes (Project Magellan) at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. The Magellan consortium currently consists of Carnegie, the University of Arizona, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Michigan. The Magellan I telescope is now completed, and Magellan II should be operational in 2002.
Dr. Singer shares with most scientists the broad concern about such matters as the decline of mathematics and science education in this country, the lack of understanding in matters of science among the general population, and the underrepresentation of women and minorities in the scientific community. Reflecting this concern, Dr. Singer introduced project “First Light”, where neighborhood 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders attend an imaginative Saturday science school in the Carnegie Institution administration building in downtown Washington, DC. The venture has attracted attention as a possible pilot for application elsewhere. In 1994, Dr. Singer initiated the Carnegie Academy for Science Education, which includes 6-week summertime institutes for elementary-school teachers along with continuing associations throughout the school year; the Academy is intended to bring the innovative techniques of First Light to the city’s public school teachers. With Paul Berg, Dr. Singer wrote the textbook Genes & Genomes, in use by students of molecular genetics worldwide; the later Dealing with Genes is designed to acquaint a wider readership with today’s genetics.
Dr. Singer is accustomed to speaking out clearly and strongly on matters facing modern society. She has been both spokesperson and leader on issues related to the promise of genetic manipulation for use in research and in the curing of disease. She has publicly supported the nation’s investment in the Human Genome Project. In congressional testimony, she has challenged the wisdom of spending heavily for biomedical research in space.
Dr. Singer is married to Daniel Morris Singer, and the couple has four grown children.