Ann Burgess on Discovery of Sigma Factor
  Ann Burgess     Biography    
Recorded: 29 Apr 2005

Oh, about sigma factor. Well, Dick was working very hard when he was a graduate student to purify all the subunits of RNA polymerase. I don’t think he—he didn’t intend to find sigma factor. But what happened is he put his preparation through another—he was always trying to get it more pure. So that was his goal; to get it more pure, more pure because there are so many subunits and they’re trying not to have anything that is a contaminant. So he put it through this phosis cellulose column and one of his—the other graduate student came and said, “Dick, can I have some RNA polymerase.” He said—it was Jeff Roberts, I think, he said, “Sure, here, this is the best stuff I ever made.” He gave it to Jeff and Jeff went back and was doing some kind of in vitro experiment where he needed RNA polymerase. He came back and said, “Dick, that stuff you gave me didn’t work.” Dick said, “How could that not work. That’s the best RNA polymerase stuff, the most pure stuff I ever made.” So then he got to thinking about it. And looked at gels across this column and looked at the flow-through and looked at the other parts of the column and there was some stuff in the flow-through that when they mixed it back, now it did work. So that was how that was discovered in my memory, but you can ask Dick.

So he knew right away it was pretty important, but I don’t know if he realized how important it was right away. It’s very exciting when you actually find something new. It was the fourth-year of graduate school, so we were about twenty-six, something like that. Oh, I have to tell you a funny story about that. About a year later I was taking the animal virus course at Cold Spring Harbor. It was a lot of young graduate students and postdocs as I remember. There was this one very young woman came up to me and said, “Ann Burgess, are you any relationship to Dick Burgess?” I’m just sure she pictured this white-haired guy. I said, “Yes, he’s my husband [laughs]. Not everybody who discovers something is a white-haired old man” [laugh].

Ann Burgess is the Director Emeritus of the Biology Core Curriculum. She earned her B.S. in chemistry from UW-Madison and her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from Harvard University. She was a Senior Lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1987 to 2002.

Biology Core Curriculum is four semester intercollege honors program that provides a broad and integrated background for students interested in any field of biological science. She is interested in undergraduate science education with a particular accent on laboratory and filed experiences that absorb students in process of science.

Ann Burgess is running in several UW-Madison and national efforts to advance science education, including the BioQUEST Consortium and the National Institute of Science Education's College Level One team.