News at Medicine - October 2009 - Nobel laureate speaks with grad students

Nobel laureate speaks with grad students
October 27, 2009
It’s not every day that the winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine is available for career advice. On Oct. 26, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn spent time with members of the Faculty of Medicine interested in hearing what she had to say about career opportunities in science.
Her basic advice was to “follow your interests.” She also spent time talking about the need for universities to provide part-time opportunities for women who want to combine family and academic pursuits.

Following her talk in the main auditorium, Dr. Blackburn had lunch with a large group of graduate students and faculty members.

Dr. Blackburn is the Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology at the University of California, San Francisco. In October 2009 she and colleagues Carol Greider and Jack Szostak were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for their discoveries. The Karolinska Institute in Sweden, the steward of the Nobel Prize, says the trio was honoured for solving a major problem in biology: showing how chromosomes can be copied in a complete way during cell divisions and how they are protected against degradation. The Nobel Laureates have shown that the solution is to be found in the ends of the chromosomes – the telomeres – and in an enzyme that forms them – telomerase.

“These discoveries had a major impact within the scientific community,” the Nobel citation said. “The discoveries by Blackburn, Greider and Szostak have added a new dimension to our understanding of the cell, shed light on disease mechanisms, and stimulated the development of potential new therapies.”

A member of Britain’s Royal Society since 1992, Dr. Blackburn was elected the following year as a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States. Her lengthy list of honours and awards include American Cancer Society Medal of Honor (2000), and honorary degrees from Yale University, University of Pennsylvania, Bard College, Brandeis University, University of Chicago, Harvard University, Princeton University and Cambridge University.

She is also an ethical role model in the wider academic community. In 2002 she accepted appointment to U.S. President George Bush’s Council on Bioethics, the group that examined the issue of stem-cell research. Two years later, she and another member of the council were fired by the White House for their objections to the report issued by the council. She said the report misrepresented the research. Her principled stand led to an international controversy that served to point out the importance of scientific independence and academic freedom.

Dr. Blackburn earned a B.Sc. and M.Sc. at the University of Melbourne, a PhD at Cambridge and did her postdoctoral work at Yale University.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Penny Moody-Corbett, associate dean for research and graduate studies (Medicine).

Dr. Blackburn with a group of graduate students in the Faculty of Medicine
For her contributions as an ethical role model and a distinguished scientist, Dr. Blackburn received an honorary doctor of science degree from Memorial University at the Oct. 23 convocation in St. John’s.