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Path to a Lasker

Evelyn Witkin, a recent winner of the Lasker Award, made a significant discovery her first day at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, she tells the New York Times.

Witkin, who is 94 years old, went to New York University, thinking that she would become a biologist. After being suspended for taking part in a civil rights protest and losing a graduate assistantship there for the next year, she headed uptown to work with Theodosius Dobzhansky at Columbia University.

"One day in 1943, Professor Dobzhansky gave me an article by Salvador Luria and Max Delbruck proving for the first time that bacteria had genes," she tells the Times. "Reporting on it for Dobzhansky's class, I jumped up and down with excitement. At the time, one of the big questions involved how genetic mutations occurred. Thanks to Luria and Delbruck, I now saw how we could use bacteria models to answer that."

The next year, on her first day at CSHL, she used ultraviolet radiation to induce mutations in E. coli. While most of her bacteria died, as the radiation was too strong, four colonies survived. That led her to study DNA repair, and to receive this year's Lasker.

Witkin also recalls advice she gave Vannevar Bush's granddaughter on pursuing a career in the sciences at a time when there were not many women in the field. "'The secret,' I told her, 'is to have a husband like Herman Witkin and boss like Vannevar Bush,'" Witkin recounts to the Times.

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