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Women And The Nobel Prize In Physiology & Medicine

The tweet came just about an hour ago announcing the well-deserved and much-predicted award of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Jack Szostak for their work on “how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.”

I wrote about this team and their accomplishments three years ago when the won the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, considered the “American Nobel.”

I said then:

Most cancer researchers, biochemists, and cell biologists know all three of these outstanding researchers. While I can’t claim being friends with any of these folks, I have spoken with Elizabeth Blackburn and have long admired her intellect. All three have published with each other and Grieder trained with Blackburn, doing the bulk of the bench biochemistry work required for the first purification of telomerase from Tetrahymena – a great day for women mentoring women.

I’m also particularly tickled to see Blackburn so recognized after her expertise on the President’s Council on Bioethics was minimized by political meddling, as I noted on the old blog.

Others will hold forth more on the science and I should probably say a word or two about the interest in telomerase inhibitors in cancer and the precarious balance between cancer and aging. This 2006 Nature Medicine review by the three laureates is a superb overview of their work (and would be even better if Nature Publishing Group made it free full text today.).

I should also note that Dr Blackburn is currently president-elect of the world’s largest cancer research society, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR):

“I am honored and privileged to be selected as president-elect of the AACR, especially at a time when our understanding of cancer shows growing potential for greater benefit to cancer patients,” said Blackburn. “We are at an exciting time in the war on cancer, and the AACR can be proud of its role in these efforts. However, we cannot rest and our goal must be to reduce cancer by even more advanced research into cancer treatments and prevention.”

What an incredible time for AACR to go into 2010 with a Nobel laureate who will then be the society’s president.

But here was my immediate reaction upon hearing/seeing the news.

In the minutes leading up to this morning’s announcement, journalist and editor of the Nobel Prize website, Simon Frantz, pointed out some fun facts in a number of tweets. One of these was:

Of the 192 individuals awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, only eight are women #nobel09

[Simon also noted post-announcement that this is the first time that two women have won the prize.]

To have Blackburn and Grieder win the prize is an incredible accomplishment for any scientist, but one that I think will pay huge dividends in helping our young women (and the mini-women that some of us Dads have) in appreciating that they too can be a world-class scientist. And as I wrote in 2006, the fact the Greider trained with Blackburn and developed such an accomplished, independent research program tells you something not only about Greider but about Blackburn-the-mentor.

This interview last year with Dr Blackburn in the Journal of Cell Biology is a terrific jumping-off point for your discussions in lectures today about women in science and medicine. The interview followed her being recognized with the L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Award:

This one really spoke to me, because over the years it became more and more obvious to me that, for women, the world of science is often difficult.

As a younger scientist I just didn’t think about it a whole lot, and I think that was the way I survived. But then as I became more senior and more confident, I realized this was something I cared about very much.

I could see my own women graduate students and postdocs feeling that they would not thrive in the world of science, despite the fact that they were, and are, wonderful scientists. They clearly love science and are fabulous at it. But at some point the world of science becomes very difficult for them.

Some of the issues are not unique to science. But they’re exacerbated in science, because of the way that science has been done over the years.

Of course, I shouldn’t minimize the contributions of Jack Szostak, who began working with Blackburn in the early 80s and co-authored key 1982 Cell and 1984 Nature papers on the unusual telomeric DNA sequences. Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe he also constructed the first yeast artificial chromosome.

But I hope that today there is substantial discussion in the blogosphere and larger media about how women can succeed in this business to its highest eschelons.

For more science, Dr Jonathan Eisen has compiled some of his early-morning tweets about the contributions of each winner to open-access PLoS journals.

*This blog post was originally published at Terra Sigillata*


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