Bwog Science is piloting Research Spotlight, a new series in which we highlight some of the cool, radical, mind-blowing science research happening at our institution. We hope that you’ll find something that sparks your interest, and which you’ll aim to learn more about.
In this week’s inaugural edition of Research Spotlight, we bring to you some of the most significant research that happened in Columbia’s past. You might not be aware of it as you scroll through Instagram during FroSci, or glaze over in your physics lecture, but some of the science that Columbia produced in the past has changed whole fields and opened up new realms of research.
Scientist: Thomas Hunt Morgan
Why He’s Significant: Created the field of modern genetics, discovered that genes are carried on chromosomes, established the fundamental understanding of heredity
Years Active at Columbia: 1904-1928
What He Did at Columbia: Dr. Morgan bred Drosophila flies in his lab at Schermerhorn Hall, and discovered that certain traits (white eyes vs red eyes, miniature wings vs regular wings, etc) were inherited via certain patterns. Dr. Morgan also elucidated the existence of sex-linked traits and chromosome crossovers, and the Drosophila fly became a model organism used extensively in research, thanks to him.
Scientist: Chien-Shiung Wu
Why She’s Significant: Renowned expert on beta-decay, conducted the Wu experiment (which contradicted the hypothetical law of conservation of parity, thus furthering the field of particle physics)
Years Active At Columbia: 1944-1987
What She Did at Columbia: Parity refers to the symmetry of a wave function in a system of particles. However, Wu’s Experiment demonstrated that when electrons were ejected through beta decay, there was a dominant left-handed spin (rather than the symmetry expected by conservation of parity). Unfortunately, Dr. Wu was passed over for the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics (which went to her male colleagues who worked with her on the experiment).
Scientist: Enrico Fermi
Why He’s Significant: Discovered induced radioactivity with uranium, fundamental to the creation of nuclear weapons through the Manhattan Project
Years Active at Columbia: 1939-1944
What He Did at Columbia: Discovered that uranium neutrons could split other fissioning uranium atoms, thereby leading to a chain reaction that could harness immense amounts of energy. Notably, Fermi fiercely condemned the use of his research in the making of a super-destructive weapon such as the hydrogen bomb, although his worries were ignored by President Truman. Read here for how Fermi got Columbia’s football team to carry massive loads of uranium across campus.
Scientist: Martin Chalfie
Why He’s Significant: Discovered and developed “Green Fluorescence Protein,” which remains one of the most widely used markers for gene expression
Years Active at Columbia: 1982-present day
What He Did at Columbia: Dr. Chalfie isolated the gene for Green Fluorescence Protein (exactly what it sounds like, a protein that glows green) from jellyfish. He was then able to engineer the gene into the genomes of other organisms, as a marker for gene expression. In other words, GFP can be linked with the expression of other proteins, and protein expression can thus be tracked by the appearance of green light. GFP has become a highly important tool for studying biological processes in cells.
Schermerhorn Hall via Bwogger