Sarah’s Diary Episode Twelve

Before Jenny used the next diary entry in class, she wanted to have students appreciate what they had learned about innovation so far. She decided to use the story of Barbara McClintock as one that could link together many of the previous themes she had developed.

“I want to start class today by asking you what you know about Barbara McClintock. Who can tell me what you know about her?”  Not one student responded. “That’s interesting. I’ll bet that Barbara McClintock’s innovation may become known as the basis for some of the most important innovations of this century. Take a few minutes and read this brief summary of her story.”

Barbara McClintock was a geneticist who did much of her work with maize. Because maize has a far longer generational cycle than E coli bacteria (the subject of most genetic research at the time), McClintock’s work took longer to develop than that of her contemporaries. She also developed insights that others did not.

Her work on gene regulation challenged the beliefs of many leading scientists. She saw things that they didn’t. The negative reactions to her work were so severe that she quit publishing the results of her work. She continued her studies but was generally ignored by her peers. What she discovered is what we now call RNA.

Ten years after she quit publishing her work, her discoveries were confirmed by others. Her work finally achieved the recognition it deserved. Thirty years after her initial discoveries, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

“Now let me share with you the significance of her work. The COVID-19 vaccine was based on her work on RNA. Scientists now believe that what was learned in developing the COVID vaccine will lead to advances in medicine that have long been just dreams.”

“Now tell me what you learned from Barbara McClintock’s story.” Jenny began to write on the board the lessons learned including:

  • Innovations are often met with resistance
  • Innovation is a product of seeing what others don’t see
  • Innovators must be persistent in their beliefs even when others discourage them
  • Much innovation comes from repeated but informed trial and error efforts
  • Innovators must become advocates for their ideas
  • Prejudice often exists in the acceptance of innovations
  • Many innovations come from parallels in the natural world
  • Innovation takes patience and shortcuts often don’t lead to success.

Jenny was very pleased with what the students had learned from Barbara McClintock’s story. “Now look back at your notes. What you have discovered from the story of a woman who did her work in the mid-twentieth century is what the Malcomb’s children were learning in the late 19th century.”

Hiram and Mable were innovators who were never known outside of their little community. And so was Barbara McClintock nearly a half-century later. Those who are true innovators are the hidden heroes of our time.

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“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” – Joseph Campbell

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.