Outspoken Australian scientist dropped by Bush wins Nobel
October 6, 2009
AUSTRALIAN Elizabeth Blackburn has won the Nobel Prize for medicine, setting a landmark for the nation’s scientists.
The Tasmanian-born molecular biologist’s Nobel is the first for an Australian woman.
Professor Blackburn, 60, who now works in San Francisco, pioneered the study of telomeres, caps that protect chromosomes in cells, and is a discoverer of telomerase, an enzyme that does the protecting.
Her work has opened a new field of science, raising the prospects of such medical breakthroughs as interfering with cancerous cells.
Professor Blackburn won with her long-time US collaborators Jack Szostak, who worked on the telemores unique DNA sequence, and Carol Greider, who co-identified the telomerase.
Australia’s 11th Nobel laureate, Professor Blackburn is a vocal advocate of independent scientific thought who fell out with the Bush administration over cloning and stem cells.
She was dropped from George Bush’s Council on Bioethics in 2004 after questioning its bias.
A colleague and friend, Melbourne University’s dean of science, Rob Saint, said Professor Blackburn, who graduated in 1971, chose her career when women were starting to become more involved in the sciences.
“I think she would be representative of a change in that gender balance,” Professor Saint said. “It’s wonderful that here we’re seeing the fruits of opening up the system.
“She is a very down-to-earth person, intelligent and wise. She stood up for not letting politics intrude into discussions about science.”
Dr Blackburn’s career path wasn’t easy. Early in her tertiary education, she returned to her birthplace, Hobart, where according to her biography a family friend said: “What’s a nice girl like you doing studying science?”
Her interest had been sparked by a likeable chemistry teacher at Launceston’s Broadland school. There, biographer Catherine Brady said, she used the new chemistry lab to try to make touch powder fireworks.
She completed her schooling at Melbourne University High School, topping the state in three matriculation subjects, before completing a biochemistry masters, and moving on to Cambridge and Yale.
At the University of California for the past 30 years, Professor Blackburn had already won numerous prizes including the Lasker award, often regarded as the American Nobel, and the Australia Prize in 1998.
She said recently her work on telomeres aimed to overcome the burden of damage caused by ageing cells. “Can you push things in a better direction?” she said in a speech at the Google San Francisco campus. “That’s what I’ve come to be interested in thinking about.”
has spoken out against closing career avenues to women because of the responsibilities of mothering young children. She said culture needed to change so a woman who had a family would not feel damned as a serious scientist.
The acting Science Minister, Craig Emerson, said her achievement was “an inspiration for all Australian scientists and those considering a career in science – especially for young women.”
Professor Roger Reddel, from the Children’s Medical Research Institute, Sydney, said Professor Blackburn’s discovery of the telomerase enzyme – which 85 per cent of all cancers depend on for their continuing growth – may make it possible to treat most cancers by developing drugs that block the activity of telomerase.
Although I’ve read the surveys on women in sciences in USA/Canada of last 20 years and we are not going forwards in most areas, so the success of a few should not be seen as representative of the status of the many.
But not only do we have a wonderful scientist but someone who speaks out about the need for independence in science and the need for women’s role as mothers to be included in their work practices and recognised in a positive way.