Dr. Karen Magnus - Biophysicist
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If you had asked me twenty years ago about how being part Chippewa had influenced my life, I probably would have told you it hadn’t. But as I have had more contact with my tribe, the Fond du Lac Ojibwe , and read more about my family history, it seems like a lot of my world-view and attitude about women’s independence and intelligence is in fact a reflection of how the Chippewa culture operates.

My feeling that women are able to do anything also comes from my parents. I grew up during the 1950s and 60s when the idea that women were just around to get married and have kids was pretty common. However, from a young age, my parents treated me as though I was going to be a member of the workforce. They also helped foster my early interest in science by taking my brother, sister and me to junior scientist meetings and to visit museums and power plants.

When I was a kid, science and technology was definitely on the minds of the American people. America was in the middle of what was called the “Space Race,” which grew out of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia). The race to develop rocketry and space flight helped cultivate a focus on science and technology that resonated throughout the country. In my school district, students with any talent for science were grouped together and we were particularly encouraged to pursue higher education in the sciences.

My early introduction to science and the subsequent encouragement by my teachers led me to attend the University of California, Davis  where I majored in chemistry and biology. College was a big transition.  In high school we received individual attention from teachers; in college there were just the “teeming masses!” I didn’t do as well in the classes where there were hundreds of other students and multiple-choice tests. But when I got to the smaller courses where I was able to interact with the other students and the professor, I did much better.

I entered college with the goal of becoming a physician. However, towards the end of my sophomore year, I realized that to obtain the necessary letters of recommendation to get into medical school, I needed to have more contact with my professors. I got a job in my advisor’s lab where I had the opportunity to work on my own experiment and I became hooked on research. I really liked the independence of lab work where I got to think of what to do and then do it!

While the transition from high school to college was challenging, my move to Baltimore, Maryland to attend Johns Hopkins University  was even more difficult. I had never lived outside of California and found the culture of the east coast took a lot of getting used to. I decided to give it a chance and after six years I earned my Ph.D. in 1980.  

It was in graduate school that I started working with x-ray crystallography which is a technique used to create three-dimensional models of proteins. X-rays are the same kind of radiation as visible light, but have a much higher energy. When sunlight hits a crystal and the light diffracts into rainbows; it is similar to when x-rays hit a sample that has been crystallized, they diffract into a pattern. This pattern is different depending on how the atoms are arranged around it. From this pattern you can work backwards to calculate the atomic structure of your sample.

In my current work as a research scientist at Duke University Marine Laboratory , I use x-ray crystallography to study proteins in the blood of horseshoe crabs. Instead of being red, like human blood, horseshoe crabs have blue blood. Hemoglobin is the protein in human blood that carries oxygen between the lungs and the tissues. Hemoglobin is made up of iron and is responsible for the red color of our blood. On the other hand, instead of hemoglobin, horseshoe crabs and other arthropods contain hemocyanin, which is made of copper. It is the presence of the copper, which makes the crab’s blood blue. By researching how oxygen is transported by hemocyanin, I am attempting to provide the basis for further understanding of oxygen transport in humans. 

My scientific work has taught me lessons that I value in all areas of my life, specifically about independence. The ability to set goals and work independently is an important skill to have, especially if you don’t always like being told what to do! But, science has also taught me about flexibility, and the fact that you always have to be able to change your mind. For example, you may come up with a hypothesis, but your experiments may not show the results you expected. When this happens you have to be able to admit you were incorrect and move on! Most of all, my scientific work has shown me the importance of pursuing what you love.

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