Making Each Other More Human

Don and Ada Olins (CREDIT: Naomi C.O. Beal)

A husband and a wife working in the same scientific discipline are ideally positioned to be collaborators, but aligning ambitions in the professional niche of fundamental research is seldom easy: Institutions must accommodate not just one scientist but a pair. And once a married couple succeeds in securing suitable positions, their respective temperaments must allow them to thrive together.

By working and living together for nearly 5 decades, cell biologists Donald and Ada Olins have shown that it can be done. Their joint signature on letters and e-mails -- DnA -- is apt because the architecture of chromatin, that repository of genetic material, has been the focus of their long, joint research career. The Olinses are best known for their discovery of the nucleosome, chromatin's basic structural unit, in the early 1970s.

We do not compete with each other; we support each other by being critical.

--Donald Olins

Today, the Olinses are at a point in their careers when most accomplished scientists occupy comfortable research chairs or enjoy emeritus status. But the Olinses, who are not yet ready to retire, will soon find themselves without a professional home. In fact, they've been more or less independent for more than a decade.


In 1959, Don Olins, a first-year medical student at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, spent the summer as an intern in one of the college's many laboratories. Impressed with his work, the distinguished biologist Paul Weiss mentioned his name to the president of Rockefeller University, Detlev Bronk, who invited Don to come to Rockefeller as a graduate student. Instead, Don returned to medical school -- but he didn't stay long; he realized he liked research too much to become a doctor.

The following winter, Ada Levy, who was fresh out of City College of New York and bound for Harvard University in the fall, arrived at Einstein to work as a lab technician. Don stayed on after work one day, ostensibly to help Ada clean up, though his real purpose was to ask her out on a date, Ada recounts.

The following fall, Ada went on to Cambridge while Don started his research career as a graduate student at Rockefeller. Gerald Edelman was his Ph.D. adviser. A year later the two married. They were determined to live together -- professional couples living apart were not exactly common in 1961 -- but a quaint university policy prevented married couples from entering Rockefeller's graduate program together. So Ada attended New York University instead. "It was unheard of, leaving Harvard for another school," she says. But for her the choice was easy; it allowed her to realize simultaneously her two top priorities: being close to her husband and doing science.

Both Olinses finished their Ph.D.s and secured postdocs at Dartmouth Medical School. They had a son and, later, another. "We took the playpen to the lab in Hanover," Ada recalls. After the postdocs, they took jobs at the biology division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee. ORNL authorities were happy to attract talent to that remote location, so qualified couples were welcome: "We were certainly not unique," Ada says. But only Don was offered a tenure-track faculty job; Ada worked on soft money, starting out as a research associate and progressing to the title of research professor, which she earned after 15 years at ORNL.

Working and living as a team

The Olinses began their research careers investigating the protean structure of chromatin, the package that houses DNA in the nuclei of eukaryotic cells. In addition to keeping genetic material compact, chromatin controls access to genes along the length of the genome. In the academic year 1970 to '71, they took a sabbatical from ORNL, visiting King’s College London, where a group including Maurice Wilkins had been working on chromatin structure.

But that group broke up before the Olinses arrived. As the Olinses note in "Chromatin history: our view from the bridge," a Perspective published in Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology, this was a stroke of luck, because they ended up working instead with Walter Gratzer (perhaps best known as a writer, including as a correspondent for Nature) and microscopist Howard Davies. Davies had already obtained "beautiful electron micrographs of chromatin 'unit threads' in chicken erythrocyte nuclei," the Olinses write in "Chromatin history."

After the sabbatical, the Olinses returned to Oak Ridge. Ada spent nights in the lab collecting images of chromatin spreads with an electron microscope while Don stayed home with the children. One day, viewing an image of a chromatin thread under a magnifying glass, the Olinses saw what looked like "beads on a string." Don called these repeating units -- the fundamental entities of chromatin -- ν bodies "because they were new, and nucleohistone," the Olinses write in "Chromatin history."

In the summer of 1973, the Olinses submitted a manuscript to Science and then headed out on a scientific tour of England, reporting their results to colleagues in Portsmouth, Manchester, London, and the G. D. Searle research laboratories in High Wycombe. In November, they presented their findings to the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) meeting in Miami, Florida. Then their Science paper was published, in January 1974, with images showing chromatin's repeating subunit and a hypothetical model of chromatin structure derived from this observation.

In a footnote to that paper, and in "Chromatin history," the Olinses share credit for this discovery with Christopher Woodcock, who, they learned at the Miami ASCB meeting, had independently obtained images similar to theirs. But Woodcock's submission had been rejected by Nature, an overzealous reviewer noting that to accept the article would require "rewriting our textbooks on cytology and genetics" and arguing, as the Olinses recount in "Chromatin history," "definitely, it should not be published anywhere."

In a paper that appeared the following May, also in Science, Roger Kornberg, who would win the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for his studies on the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription," proposed an alternative model of the ν body, writing in the endnote citing the Olinses' Science paper that "similar micrographs have been obtained by Dr. J. T. Finch of this laboratory."

The discovery of the nucleosome (as the ν body was soon renamed) made a splash. The Olinses struck up new collaborations. Don received a U.S. Senior Scientist Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and Ada received a visiting fellowship from the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg. They traveled to Heidelberg, enrolled their two sons (who were 14 and 12) in the local school, and went to work at the research center, creating lasting relationships with scientists there.

Don using one of the couple's collection of antique microscopes, a Powell & Lealand from 1862

Don using one of the couple's collection of antique microscopes, a Powell & Lealand from 1862.

Courtesy of Don and Ada Olins

Back in the United States, Don was tenured at ORNL, and Ada stayed on the research-faculty track. Like many scholars of her generation and gender who married other scientists, Ada never aspired to academic power. "I could have had my own lab, an independent career, and been alone," she says.

In the course they chose instead, the Olinses are almost always together, and much of their time together is spent talking about science. As colleagues, they say, their strength is a gift for free and open communication. "When we discuss and criticize ideas, our goals are the same: to understand," Don says. "We do not compete with each other; we support each other by being critical."

Their professional partnership is aided by the fact that their expertise is complementary but distinct, says Peter Gaines, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, who has co-authored papers with the Olinses. Don is the cell biologist, and Ada’s second love is the electron microscope. "They can be each other's, and my, worst critic -- a good thing -- and also provide different points of view and positive feedback, such that the combined effort works synergistically," Gaines says.

Expressing their frustrations to each other, they say, allows them to approach the outside world of research, and each other, with equanimity. "This is our basic strength," Don says. "We understand and share when we're screwed and when we're happy. It makes me more human."

Researchers without borders -- or a scientific home

In 1998, ORNL's huge biology division was reorganized, and many of the Olinses' friends decided to leave. After 30 years in Tennessee, the Olinses followed suit, with Don taking early retirement from his faculty post, and Ada moving on.

They moved on to Maine, where both their sons had settled, one a baker, the other a school teacher. "Plus, our first grandchild was born a year earlier, so we decided it was time to be geographically closer to the family," Ada says.

In leaving ORNL, it wasn't their intention to retire. They have continued to travel to DKFZ every year to work as guest scientists; each visit typically lasts 3 to 4 months. They have also continued to publish. In Maine, they sought relationships first with the Foundation for Blood Research in Scarborough and then with Bowdoin College in Brunswick. They won a grant from the National Institutes of Health Academic Research Enhancement Award program, which is intended for researchers at institutions where research is not the highest priority. The grant and affiliation have allowed them to remain scientifically active even when they're not traveling.

When the Olinses left ORNL, they started drawing retirement annuities, so they no longer require a salary. "Not having to worry about our livelihoods has freed us to concentrate upon our beloved nuclei," Ada says.

But research requires more than a salary. The Olinses lost their lab space in 2008, when Bowdoin professor William Steinhart, who invited them to join the college, retired, and the space was needed for a new junior hire. Their Bowdoin affiliations will end soon, leaving them without such research fundamentals as library privileges and an institution to administer research grants. They fear, too, that journal editors may not seriously consider manuscripts sent from authors who lack an institutional affiliation.

Yet the Olinses continue to have high aspirations. They do research, they say, for the exhilaration of being at the frontier of knowledge. "It's like standing on a mountaintop and trying to see far into the distance," Don says. Such "panorama" moments -- Don's word -- are few and far between, but it's an experience the Olinses hope to have again someday soon.

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