Posted by: woodforthetrees | March 24, 2010

Structural data falls under a woman’s influence

Helen Berman is my nomination for an outstanding female scientist for Ada Lovelace Day. Picture from Wikipedia.

It’s Ada Lovelace Day and I’m going to try something brave. I want to write about a woman in science whom I admire, but as I work with her on one of her projects it’s a bit daunting. I very much respect her and I would be delighted to achieve just a fraction of what she has. But she has a reputation for being, how shall I say this, exacting. She’s Helen M Berman and she’s the director of the RCSB PDB.

Her story is intimately connected with the history of the PDB. She was there at the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium in 1971 when the PDB was born, when Helen was aged only 28, and has worked with this database ever since, becoming the director of the RCSB PDB in 1998.

Before taking up the directorship, she researched primarily on nucleic acid and protein-nucleic acid complexes, but more and more Helen kept thinking that if the data from structural biology could be stored in a systematic way then all sorts of data-mining opportunities would be possible. This was more than 20 years ago: it was way, way before such topics became fashionable.

Helen’s organised approach and very high standards have made the PDB the highly regarded database that it is today. I don’t know if she can program computers like Ada Lovelace but she can certainly organise programmers. And she combined these high standard and achievements with having a child and, for the US — (life’s a bit different here in Europe) — she is unusually sympathetic to the demands of juggling childcare and science.

One of the remarkable things about Helen is that her life has been devoted to service within science rather than, as some might call it, doing real science. By concentrating on the infrastructure her contribution, I believe, is much greater than if she had just run her own lab, even a very successful one.

A woman’s touch has made the PDB probably the most famous science database in the world.

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