In 1989, John won a research grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to investigate UV damage in crop plants and the effects of ozone depletion. Countries were preparing to phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and related compounds to comply with the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.
To measure DNA damage and repair, Betsy used an enzymatic workup and gel electrophoresis, using fluorescence to visualize the DNA profile on the gel. Betsy got the data by taking a Polaroid picture of the gels, photocopying the DNA profiles, cutting the profile segments, and weighing each one. John remembers coming past the technician at the photocopy machine on day, saying, “We have to do better than this.”
For developing a technique using fluorescent tags in analyzing DNA damage caused by cosmic rays, Betsy and her team were recognized by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science with a “Best in Class” pollution prevention innovation. The previous method required the use of radioactive tags to monitor repair of DNA damage. Using the new technique, Betsy established that the severity of the damage to DNA is affected more by the spatial arrangement of damaged sites than by the number of damaged sites.
As John developed the instrumentation for synchrotron radiation circular dichroism (SRCD) spectroscopy, the technique gained popularity among researchers studying biological molecules. John continued collaborating with Betsy on UV-induced DNA damage, while also inventing instruments with new capabilities.
In a New York Times story, Betsy was one of several scientists explaining why radiation would be a major complication on a human mission to Mars. Betsy was demonstrating the set up used to hit single cells with heavy ions, simulating cosmic rays. When asked about the importance of delivery rate to the damage caused, Betsy replied: "If a cell is hit once, there is no rate. Once is once."