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Claire M. Berg: Roots at Farmingdale

March 19, 2019

Claire BergBy April Earle

A college's life blood is its graduates. They are the people who establish an institution’s reputation. We send our graduates out into the world to make their mark, and that mark reflects on us. We would not be who we are as an institution if it were not for our students.

For much of our history, FSC – known by several other names - was a two-year institution. Students earned associate degrees and certificates in agricultural studies and technologies such as aviation, advertising art and design, construction technology, and dental hygiene; good, solid, affordable programs that provided one with the skills necessary to achieve financial stability in Long Island’s ever-evolving economy.

For those of us who began our academic career at a two-year institution, and went on to pursue bachelor’s degrees or doctorates, with the idea of making a career in academia, we tend to fail to recognize the achievement of an associate’s degree. Yet, those first institutions are the places where many academics gained their footing. This absence of acknowledgement tends to make it challenging for us to find our alums out in academia.

This year the Phenomenal Womyn's Award has been renamed the Kathryn Freeman Phenomenal Womyn's Award, in honor of the only female graduate in our first graduating class - Kathryn Freeman, Class of 1919. Among Kathryn’s fellow classmates was Albert W. Berg. The only son of immigrant parents, born and raised in New York City, Albert took over his father’s flour distribution business in the late 1920s and ran it successfully until his retirement in 1970. He and his wife Clara raised four children, one of which was Claire M. Berg, Class of 1955.

Claire received her first degree at Farmingdale, when we were known as SUNY Long Island Agricultural and Technical Institute at Farmingdale, New York. She could have stopped with her degree in floriculture and pursued a perfectly suitable career, but Claire decided to continue her studies. She went on to study plant breeding at Cornell University. It was a natural route for many of our graduates to pursue their bachelor’s in agriculture at Cornell; it was, and still is, geographically the closest college with a program in agriculture.

claire perg with her father and brother

Claire didn’t stop there, though. After Cornell, she went on to earn an MS in Genetics/Botany from the University of Chicago in 1962, and then her PhD in Genetics/Botany from Columbia University in 1966. In 1968, after postdoctoral work in London and Geneva, Claire became a professor at the University of Connecticut; one of the few female faculty members in her time.

An expert in genetics, Claire focused most of her research on “jumping genes,” also known as transposons, which are small DNA sequences that can move from one location to another in the genome. To simplify her research into a single sentence does not do the spirit of her work justice. She published more than 70 manuscripts (University of Connecticut, n.d.) more than a dozen of which she co-authored with her brother; Douglas E. Berg, PhD.

Speaking with Douglas, his love and admiration for his sister is palpable, not only as a sibling but as a scientist, educator, and human being. He spoke candidly about his own lack of awareness of his male privilege, until collaborating with his sister in research and publishing their work.

His sister fought for the advancement of women in science and research, and for her own seat as a tenured member of the white, male-dominated faculty of her time. Her efforts to bring women to science reached beyond Uconn, through her work with numerous national organizations, including the Department of Education (DOE), National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In an editorial in the journal Science in August 1972, Claire wrote, “Some of us who are interested in equal opportunities for the socially disadvantaged...want to change the foundation so that merit, finally, can become the sole criterion which decides a person’s position. I look forward to the day when affirmative action will no longer be needed, when merit can be judged objectively.”

Her legacy continues to ensure opportunities for women to research in genetics. After her death from pancreatic cancer in 1997, at the age of 60, Claire’s friends, family, and colleagues established the Claire M. Berg Fellowship in Genetics at Uconn, to support summer fellowships for female graduate students who show promise in the field.

Claire’s life story inspires us to consider the possibilities that lay before us, and the opportunities we can create for others to follow, and ultimately carve on their own.

 

References

Berg, C.M. (1972). Equal Opportunity at NIH. Science, New Series, 177(4048), 474-475.

University of Connecticut. (n.d.). Financial Support - Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. Retrieved from https://mcb.uconn.edu/financial-support/

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