Sculpting a Nobel Laureate

By Anna Carmichael '18

David Zakalik
David Zakalik ’15

Last summer, David Zakalik ’15 noticed something missing at the Cornell Plantations. Specifically, at the McClintock Shed where Barbara McClintock, B.S. ’23, M.A. ’25, Ph.D. ’27, did her work as a graduate student in the 1920s, adequate adulation was missing for the woman who would become one of the century’s leading geneticists and whose insight into the nature of genes and how traits are inherited predated the discovery of DNA.

“There is a plaque up, but I thought it was a shame that this outstanding Cornellian didn’t have much commemorating her work,” Zakalik said.

As last summer came to a close, Zakalik—animal science major—decided to create a driftwood sculpture of McClintock that would not only fulfill the capstone project requirement for his horticulture minor but also honor McClintock. The resulting piece, which combined his interest in horticultural art and his admiration of McClintock’s work, will be installed on the McClintock Shed this fall.

As soon as the ground unfroze last spring, Zakalik began collecting wood for the sculpture, first around Beebe Lake and then on the shores of Cayuga Lake. He worked on the project in his dorm room, where he projected an image of McClintock onto paper to create a blueprint for the 2D sculpture.

The McClintock Shed at the Cornell Plantations
The McClintock Shed at the Cornell Plantations with Zakalik's sculpture.

“At first I was trying to use pieces that fit exactly, but I’ve realized that I don’t need to be a perfectionist,” he said. “It actually came together much better once I used smaller pieces.”

The sculpture was built using wood glue and clamps, and a finishing coat of wood sealant will protect it from the weather.

Over the duration of his project, Zakalik continued to learn about McClintock, delving into her biography, A Feeling for the Organism. Her work on maize cytogenetics has proved to be hugely important. Her demonstration of the physical basis of chromosome crossing—the moment when parental genes are shuffled to generate new combinations in tissues such as pollen, eggs and sperm—has made her one of the most influential women in genetics.

She was honored in many ways, eventually earning the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1983—the first woman to win an unshared Nobel Prize in that category—as well as a MacArthur “genius” grant and admission to the National Academy of Sciences. There is even an ongoing campaign to get her on the ten dollar bill.

Zakalik hopes to honor her again, at the site of some of her key discoveries.

“She loved what she did, and that’s so special,” Zakalik said. “She was focused and really immersed in her work. I hope the sculpture of McClintock will help people recognize the exceptional work that she did as a Cornell student and professor.”