Recorded: 20 Feb 2001
The most clear thing about Barbara was that she was spectacularly intelligent. Few people have met her and not come away thinking that she was just a cut above. She had an insight, but it wasn't some sort of mystical insight, it was a real intellect. She just understood things better than other people did, and she was able to see, especially in genetics, of course. Genetics is something of a language unto itself and she was a master of that language. But, she could see genetic principles very clearly from very straightforward data. She was also very rigorous and that's something that people often lose sight of, given that she made such huge intellectual leaps, but actually it was based on very rigorous science. It was observation and she took every single piece of data extremely seriously. So when she looked at a plant, a maize plant, or a field of plants, or a maize ear, she would look very carefully at every single kernel and try to explain everything. And if she couldn't explain it, she realized that logically there was an inherent flaw in the argument that had to be patched up in some way. She had a real ability to do that which few scientists have and that to me is the most overwhelming thing.
Having said that, she was extremely warm individual. She was actually very pleasant to talk to; she cared a lot about the people around her; she was very generous; she always found time for whoever wanted to come and see her. Though at the same time, if you abused that, or if you behaved stupidly, she had a fairly low tolerance for that. So long as she felt you were gaining something, [and] you understood what she was saying, and you were having some sort of constructive conversation, she was really very, very helpful and supportive. She was a lot of fun, actually. She had a tremendous sense of humor as well, sometimes fairly cutting but very funny.
Rob Martienssen is a plant molecular geneticist and professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He received his Ph.D. from Cambridge University in 1986 and did postdoctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley.
As a young scientist, he worked closely with Barbara McClintock. He currently studies plant epigenetics and development using functional genomics. He was awarded the Kumho International Science Award in Plant Biology and Biotechnology (2001).