Rediscover STEAM
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Rediscover STEAM

Jacqueline K. Barton, Chemist & Pioneer in the Study of DNA Helix Properties

From Rosalind Franklin’s revolutionizing insight into DNA’s structure to Marie Curie’s prolific championing of two Nobel Prizes, women have been held against the most tumultuous of adversaries and achieved great heights just to have themselves re-written “out” of history. Yet, one woman in particular has triumphed to cease the cyclical movement of patriarchal cultures within the scientific domain, demonstrating that women in science deserve to be rendered with equal resources and admiration on all frontiers. Jacqueline K. Barton’s revolutionizing work on DNA’s electron transport may have been obscured by universal veneration, yet her accomplishments take precedence as one of the most instrumental revelations in prompting, orchestrating, and concretizing the groundwork for future enquiries on DNA’s movement of electrons.

Jacqueline K. Barton was born on May 7, 1952 in New York. Her father extensively dabbled in New York’s political climate with his gradual transcendence from an Assembly member to a trial judge within New York’s Supreme Court. With the head of the Barton family preoccupied by the realm of political justice, Jacqueline deviated from the tumult that appeared to entail political afflictions and instead became intrigued with the multifaceted complexity of the scientific domain. Affluence and wealth prompted her eventual enrolment in the Riverdale Country School for Girls, solidifying her prerequisites and experience rather extensively. Here, Barton was fortified with paramount knowledge in academics, wherein her unique and vanguard approaches towards the subjects captivated the attention of her educators. With Barton’s unparalleled expertise in academia, she was then sent to study calculus at the boys’ section of the Riverdale institution, where her habitual excellence in the subject flourished further.

Moving up, her expertise secured her an enrolment within Barnard College’s physical chemistry course, where she was initially exposed to chemistry’s variegated spectrum of knowledge. This extended from its practical applications in laboratory work to instigating chemical reactions and transformations. As her college years eventually concluded at Barnard, supplemented with her cum laude accolade, Barton tied the knot with a fellow first year from Columbia University. Ensuing with her continuum in academic pursuits, she began studying inorganic chemistry at the institution. Throughout her experimental investigations, Barton sought research intertwining chemistry’s plethora of facets, inclusive of both biochemistry and physical chemistry. This predilection to employ more versatile applications from inorganic and biologically-affiliated chemistry eventually peaked in her interest in DNA. Alongside her mentor Stephen J. Lippard, Barton became enthralled with the puzzle of how inorganic or metal complexes may be utilized as probative mediums to investigate structural variations in DNA’s double helix.

Barton’s prolificacy in this domain surpassed expectations, and she and Lippard began dabbling in the development of these complexes, engineering chiral complexes designed to detect nucleic acids with specific components rivaling against DNA binding proteins. In the production of these artificialized synthetic transition metal complexes, Barton revolutionized our understanding of DNA’s electrical conductivity. Her work ranged from solidifying chemical principles/dogmas distinguishing nucleic acids, initiating opportunities in the development of luminescent and photochemical reagents as diagnostic tools, to concretizing the foundation in the novel designs of chemotherapeutic ailments. The complexity encompassed within these domains, however, did not impede Barton, as she pursued the universality of the information, from elucidating electron conductivity and transfers moderated by the DNA double helix, to exhibiting the oxidative detriments when electric charges migrate through the helix. Barton was able to solidify her research further with investigations on how the electric transports of DNA were particularly responsive towards disturbances identified within the DNA base stack, often prompted with single base inconsistencies or lesions.

Laying the foundation for researchers to come, Barton revolutionized the development of DNA-based electrochemical receptors and sensors, escalating their efficacies within long range signaling internal to cell structures, DNA charge conductivity, and transport in DNA reparations. Her work fixating on the electrical conductivities within DNA helical structures has propelled in-depth research into the reparation and damage within these genealogical factors and how to extrapolate patterns in electrical conductivity to prevent such genomic damage. Her prior work complemented with her in-depth analyses of DNA mismatches and lesions broadened the spectra on how biological electron transport aided or inhibited the sensory and receptive elements of the DNA helical structure. Furthermore, Barton’s non-probative measures and mediums allowed the sensing of damaged segments of the DNA structure, while also reporting the binding instances between DNA and proteins. Barton’s research program did not only entail avant-guard prospects, but it also broadened horizons for the rather ambiguous domain of chemistry, one not frequently tackled by even the most eminent of scientists.

In recent circumstances, Barton’s program has expounded the most vanguard of investigations with her newfound revelation on how DNA binding proteins, employed within transcription and replication, contain a redox-active metal cluster. This sparked forthcoming investigations focusing on detecting lesions, DNA base mismatches, and other detrimental constituents damaging the DNA’s ability to replicate or perform processes. Equipped with her cutting-edge mentality and dissemination of integral research, Barton has rightfully established herself as a prominent figure in the field of electron transport, revolutionizing how electron conductivity, when labored under technological advancements, would alleviate millions from exposure to genealogical defect deterioration. Several have voiced that Barton’s narrative never entailed any obscurity for the public, and truth be told, she was not as disparaged as a plenitude of women in science were. Yet, her account prevails to constitute as one of the most empowering impetuses that have prompted an entire generation of female chemists. From here, her accomplishments received worldwide acclaim, where she eventually propelled herself to a faculty position at Caltech University. She also sustained the Arthur and Marion Hanisch Memorial Professorship from 1997 to 2016, and until 2019 served as the Norman Davidson Leadership Chair.

As an established woman in the field, Barton’s attainment of prestigious accolades, fortunately, does not undermine the degree of her revolutionizing discovery. Her tangible and intangible accomplishments both precede her, from honorary and prestigious accolades deriving from Alan T. Waterman, the American Chemical Society, and the American Institutes of Chemists paramount award of the Gold Medal. Alternately, she has also championed the ACS Nichols, ACS Gibbs, Havinga, Pupin, the ACS Pauling, Fresenius, and other such prolific commendations, one particularly notable one originating from 2010 as the National Medal of Science, granted by former President Obama. Not only a fellow of the Sloan Foundation, a Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar, and an NSF Presidential Young Investigator, Barton’s intangible achievements have also surpassed her, as she is unanimously known as a good-natured and brilliant mentor. Jacqueline K. Barton’s narrative, albeit within the modern saga, is still an episodic victory for women universally, as she defied the odds and fortified a bridge between scientific disciplines, consolidating the universality of chemistry’s pronounced dogmas.

by Brianna Renatte


“ChemSci Barton Banner.” Jacqueline K. Barton, National Academy of Sciences,

“Jacqueline K. Barton.” Science History Institute, 1 June 2020,

Kemsley, Jyllian. “Meet Jacqueline K. Barton, 2015 Priestley Medalist.” Chemical & Engineering News, American Chemical Society, 15 May 2019,

“Professor Jacqueline K. Barton.” About Professor Jacqueline K. Barton,

Stafshede, Pernilla Wittung. “Jacqueline K. Barton.” The Biophysical Society, The Biophysical Society, 29 Aug. 2019,



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