HER FINALIST PROJECT: Measuring the orbit of a satellite called…Sputnik

WHAT LED TO THE PROJECT: Like many young people growing up in the 1950's, Jane Richardson veered into science in part because of Sputnik—though in her case, the connection was quite direct. Deeply interested in astronomy, she and her friends in Teaneck, N.J., used to stake out spots in a field in the days after the Soviets launched their satellite. They recorded where in the stars the light had passed; Sputnik wasn't hard to find. "These days there are lots of satellites, but there was only one at that point," she says. She managed to spot the satellite two days in a row, and the slight difference in positioning allowed her to calculate the orbit. She wrote up her findings, entered them in the 1958 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and was named a finalist.

THE EFFECT ON HER CAREER: It was a conventional start to a scientific career, but Richardson soon left the usual orbit. She went to graduate school in philosophy, bounced around to different things, and finally landed in a research lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where her husband David* was finishing his PhD. That's when she became fascinated by the protein crystal structures and RNA he was studying. Like the stars, she describes proteins as a "modern version of natural history." Their form reveals a lot about evolution, and how our world came to be.

To make their structure more understandable, she eventually began to create colorful drawings that showed these twisting ribbons in their three-dimensional glory. The first image appeared in the journal Advances in Protein Chemistry in 1981, after the couple had moved to Duke University, where she became a professor of biochemistry.

The bright ribbons instantly captivated viewers. The slightly exaggerated perspective in Jane's drawings enabled her to emphasize the proteins' three-dimensional quality. She showed how their complex chains twist around on themselves, and consequently provided a way for people to visualize these molecules that hadn't been available before.

Richardson had no idea the drawings would be as popular as they were. "I hoped they would be useful," she says.

In fact, aside from appearing on the covers of numerous journals, the "Richardson diagrams" broke open the study of these complex molecules. "Jane and David's work allowed us to reveal the form of proteins, and from there it was easier to understand their function," 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry co-winner Peter Agre recently told Duke Research, a university publication.

WHAT SHE'S DOING NOW: Jane's work earned her a MacArthur fellowship in 1985 (an experience she calls "dumbfounding"). In 2006 she was elected to the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C.—quite an honor for someone who has neither a PhD nor a medical degree.

The couple still teaches at Duke, where the Richardson lab creates 3-D computerized images of molecules and attempts to design new proteins. Jane recognizes that her career has been full of serendipity. "I think most people starting out are better off going in a fairly traditional path, but also remembering that you don't have to," she says. "If you want to change direction, or go off for awhile and do something different, that's not impossible." As she points out, "the conventional routes have lots of stumbling blocks, too."

*Correction (5/30/08):  David Richardson was originally identified as John Richardson.