Structural biology is a typically unromantic story. Few would compare the molecular structures of proteins and nucleic acids to the feelings we associate with love: affection, beauty, mystery and more. Yet, somehow, biophysicists Jane and Dave Richardson have integrated their love for learning, nature, art and most touchingly, each other, into their research and laboratory space at Duke University. The two have been married and collaborating on research together for nearly 50 years.
“We do complement each other,” Dave said, as he tried to articulate how two people—let alone spouses—can work so well together for almost half a decade. “But I think the real key is that we both have the same sense of what’s fun, so the level of the way we get engrossed in an idea or doing something is very compatible.”
The Richardson Lab is tucked away, hidden among several laboratories on the first floor of the Nanaline H. Duke Building on Research Drive. Although the building is well-known to those in the biochemistry department and related fields, nonscientists at Duke have probably never heard of it.
Hanging outside their laboratory is a nontraditional, though colorful, art exhibit. Nine canvas prints of squiggly lines and curves have been arranged across a 5-foot-wide wall space. Jane explains that the images, fastened to the wall by her husband Dave, are photographic reproductions of just a few of the many protein and RNA structures their lab has studied over the years. When the couple began their research into the 3-D structures of proteins at MIT, 50 years ago, only three were known. Today, thanks to the development of new technologies and databases, there are more than 83,000 recorded structures. Although their work may be sophisticated, Jane explained that most people can understand it simply through the geometric and visual components.
“We have discovered that a meaningful scientific illustration carries an aesthetic with it, because even to the uninitiated, it implies meaning,” Dave said. “Even in a textbook or a paper, they are not just splotches of color—there’s something more there.”
Jane is most famous for her “ribbon diagrams” of protein structures, which were first published in 1981. These drawings, which she spent more than a year learning how to make, are now done by computer graphics, have become a standard way of visualizing protein structures and are depicted in virtually every biology and biochemistry textbook. Her original drawing of the protein triose phosphate isomerase, colored in browns and greens, is the focal point in her office and was even a Picture of the Day on Wikipedia.
“It’s very much like a good painting,” Dave added. “It draws you into it, and you can see sense to it. Understanding it that way and seeing that so much of our work lends itself to that is why it’s fun to have people come visit our lab and look at all the models and pictures.”
The lab itself is an artist’s dream—the general workspace is triangular in shape; black, plastic beams arch over staff desks; modern, architectural models stand above tall, metal file racks; drawings, paintings and photographs hang and rest all across the lab. Some of the aesthetics are scientific structures, while others are more scenic—mountain landscapes and exotic flowers are subtle testaments to their nature-filled childhoods and mutual love for the outdoors.
“We love taking pictures,” Jane said. “Either of our work or of mountains and flowers, because we like hiking. We’re not experts, but it’s really fun, and trying to identify things is really interesting.”
As they describe in draft pages of their co-authored memoir, Jane and Dave grew up on the outskirts of big cities—New York and Philadelphia, respectively—which gave them dual access to woods and streams as well as science and art museums.
The couple met during their freshman year at Swarthmore College, when Dave began bringing his lunch to the physics library where Jane often spent her afternoons. Although Jane studied philosophy and Dave studied chemistry, the two thrived in the intellectual environment and picturesque surroundings. After graduating in 1962, the couple moved to Boston where they attended graduate school—Jane at Harvard and Dave at MIT. The Richardsons were married in 1963 on Groundhog Day.
“We’d been going out all through college, and we definitely wanted to go to the same place for graduate school,” Jane said. “Sometime during our first year in Boston, we started asking ourselves whether we should get married and realized that it wasn’t really a question, and so we did that a few weeks later.”
It was in Boston that the couple first worked together. Dave had joined a chemistry lab at MIT, where he began researching protein crystal structure. Up the Charles River, Jane soon discovered that the philosophy department at Harvard specialized in areas different from her own interests, and she decided to leave the graduate program with a master’s degree after one year. Following an attempt to teach high school science—which she describes as a complete disaster—Jane joined her husband’s project as a technician, a “synergistic combination” that began their long-standing careers as research and life partners.
“Jane never got her Ph.D.,” Dave said. “But the people who met Jane really were impressed. When we interviewed at Duke, they also were impressed and managed to wangle a position in the anatomy department for her, because there was a nepotism rule [within the same department] at the time.”
In their early years Duke, Jane was “invisible,” they both say, which meant she could pursue her own research interests without much oversight. During this period, she published several single-author papers to which Dave actually contributed. This was important to her rise in the field, as it was notoriously difficult for women to publish during that era.
“I was the one people interviewed during those years,” Dave laughed. “And then the world discovered Jane.”
The couple emphasizes the fact that they are, and have always been, collaborators, not competitors; they have always hated competitive sports. Their lab, too, reflects a sentiment of collaboration—they work with a number of other research groups, and their students interact and work together on multiple projects.
“It’s harder now than it used to be, because these days people are really hung up on who did exactly what, “ Jane said. “But that’s what we’ve been trying to get people to realize—it’s really the both of us.”
Over the course of the interview, it was impossible to forget that the Richardsons are a team in every sense of the word. In fact, this piece was intended to only feature Jane, who insisted that it would not be complete without her husband and counterpart.
“A lot of people say that they couldn’t possibly [work with their spouses] and that it would be horrible, which they may be right about for them. But I think you would find that out very soon, and there would be no middle ground.”
Completing Jane’s thought, Dave added, “We like each other a lot.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated in a quote that Jane Richardson joined Duke's astronomy department. She in fact joined the anatomy department. The Chronicle regrets the error.