Last week we lost another great female scientist, structural biologist Carolyn Cohen, lovingly known by friends as “C2”. Cohen studied biology and physics at Bryn Mawr, but she felt she “found her calling” outside of the classroom, when, during a summer job working in the kitchens at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, MA she heard a lecture on protein structures by Dorothy Wrinch, and was struck by the beauty of Wrinch’s slides. She went on to earn a PhD in biophysics from MIT, where she gained the expertise needed to pursue her new professional mission to “see and know about” proteins.
She joined the Children’s Cancer Research Foundation (Jimmy Fund), where she worked closely with her friends and coworkers Don Caspar and Susan Lowey, before the three of them moved their group to Brandeis University, where they founded the Structural Biology group. Here, Cohen used structural, molecular, and biochemical methods to research the molecular motors that power our muscles. In addition to her work on specific proteins, she investigated the principles that govern the folding of all proteins, principles that can help scientists predict the 3-dimensional structures of proteins based on their underlying sequence alone. Cohen holds the record (39 years!) for longest funded research project under the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease (NIAMS).
Her scientific work earned her the title of Brandeis’ first female tenured biology professor, but colleagues remember Cohen for more than just her scientific accomplishments. In addition to her infectious passion for science, she had a great sense of humor and a love of literature, which she tried to pass on to colleagues and trainees. She is also remembered for her warmth of heart, evident in the personal touches she’d add to her professional interactions. She was motivated by curiosity and a desire to “do the right thing” rather than fame and awards (although she received quite a few, including election to the National Academy of Sciences). When she saw injustice, she spoke out, especially when it came to supporting fellow women in science; upset by the treatment and lack of recognition Rosalind Franklin had received for her work on solving the structure of DNA, Cohen held a lecture to honor Franklin’s life. Cohen died on December 20, 2017 and is deeply missed.
Photo credit: Brandeis University