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Scientist and Political Activist

NYS Writers Institute, April 4, 2003
4:00 p.m. Dicussion | Standish Room, Science Library

Jon Beckwith is a scientist responsible for several earth-shaking developments in the field of genetics. He is also a controversial activist who donated the money from a major scientific prize, the Eli Lilly Award, and the Black Panther Movement in 1969. Beginning with his opposition to the Vietnam War, Beckwith has been one of the scientific community's most eloquent champions of social justice and civil liberties.

Beckwith was among the first in his field to warn the world about the dangers of genetic engineering. He has long been a major contributor to ongoing debates about the ethical implications of genetics and sociobiology. He has also been an important organizer of the international activist organization, Science for the People.

Beckwith's new memoir, Making Genes, Making Waves: A Social Activist in Science (2002), recounts a life equally committed to genetic research and ethical causes.

"a beautifully written autobiography [that] vividly describes. . .the cultural revolution in science that molecular biology brought with it. . .Beckwith has portrayed a fascinating period in the history of modern biology and the interaction of science and society in the Western world." - Ute Deichmann, Nature

Beckwith describes major scientific discoveries

"in plain language, not jargon, making the book readable for nonspecialists." . . . "Society is very much the better for the efforts of those such as Beckwith who clearly enjoy the challenge of describing complex issues to non-specialists and participating in debates as to how new knowledge should be used." - Times Higher Education Supplement

Jon Beckwith is the American Cancer Society Research Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Harvard Medical School. In addition to developing the first techniques for isolating and cloning genes, he and his collaborators are credited with discovering how genes are switched on, how proteins are transported within and outside cells, and how protein molecules are folded inside cells.

Most of Beckwith's discoveries derived from his work with the E. coli bacterium. He is considered unusual in the modern scientific community for pursuing work on a single organism for more than four decades.

Beckwith credits James Watson, the codiscoverer of DNA, with turning him on to genetics during his second year of graduate school at Harvard. He was also inspired by the research of the Nobel Prize-winning French geneticists Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod--whose work on genetic switching mechanisms he eventually disproved.

Much of Beckwith's social activism in recent years has focused on the emerging problem of "genetic discrimination": the misuse of genetics as a justification for discriminating against individuals on the basis of their genetic profiles. He states on his personal web page:

"I have expressed concerns that the science behind much of human behavioral genetics is weak, but that nevertheless it receives much more public attention than it warrants. Such publicity often presents a deterministic message to the public. I have been involved with a study group that discovered numerous cases where individuals had been discriminated against on the basis of a genetic test, when they were not exhibiting any signs of illness. Our studies have provided some of the stimulus for the consideration of laws that would ban genetic discrimination." - Jon Beckwith

Other books authored or coauthored by Beckwith include The Power of Bacterial Genetics (1992), Gene Function in Prokaryotes (1983), The Politics of Genetics Engineering (1975), Genetic Screening: Benefits and Limitations (1970), and The Lactose Operon (1970). His articles have appeared in numerous major scientific journals.

In addition to science and ethics, Beckwith maintains an active interest in art. He and his wife spend their vacations hunting for Native American rock art in the southwestern United States, and for early medieval erotic art in the churches of southwestern France.

For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.