Recorded: 20 Feb 2001
I actually first met Barbara McClintock at my interview at Cold Spring Harbor, when I came for an interview for a faculty position, and it was a fairly small audience for my talk. It only consisted of about four people, but three of them were Nobel Laureates and one of them was Barbara McClintock. I was talking about transposable elements in maize, which is, of course, the field that she founded, so it was quite a challenge. But she was extremely polite, she listened very attentively, she was very interested and she had great questions. So it was really—she put me at my ease immediately, which can't be said of some of the other people in the room. So it was really a very pleasant first meeting.
In 1988. I spent the afternoon with her, talking about my work and, of course, also about hers. It was really like a piece of history to me and it was a very, very important first meeting. After that time, I came here—a few months later—to take up the faculty position and I spent a lot of time with her, talking about the impact of transposable elements on gene expression, which was really the central interest of her work, actually. She often used to say that the real secret of transposable elements was not the fact that they could transpose. Although that was a great discovery and a very important thing in the history of genetics, her real interest was in the way in which they influenced what she called genic expression. And now, of course, the whole field of gene expression is an enormous one and one that, in many ways, she was right at the beginning of in the 1940s and ’50s. And so it was that area that interested her most.
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).