Friday Hoyden: Elizabeth Blackburn, Nobel Laureate

Elizabeth Blackburn sitting beside a microscope

Molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, 2009 Nobel Laureate for Medicine

My daughter’s school science department organised for our Year 10 students to go to a speech given by Dr Blackburn at the inner-east Moriah College yesterday. They were thrilled by her clever slide presentation and the passion she conveyed for her work. Dr Blackburn was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine for her joint discovery of Telomerase, an enzyme that replenishes a protective structure at the end of chromosomes called the telomere, an enzyme with exciting implications for the study of cancer and human longevity.

Here’s some quotes from a speech she gave at Questacon in Canberra the day before yesterday, which no doubt is essentially the same speech:

THE first Australian-born woman to win a Nobel prize has revealed the secret to her success: daydreaming.

Speaking to an audience of children at the national science and technology centre, Questacon, in Canberra yesterday, the molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn conceded grown ups might not welcome her advice.

”Your parents and your teachers are going to kill me if they hear you say ‘she told us just to daydream,’ ” Professor Blackburn joked.

”That’s not what I’m saying. I think it is really important that you engage energetically in your learning … but … I think you need time to daydream, to let your imagination take you where it can,” she said.

”Just do that some of the time, because I’ve noticed [that] among the creative, successful scientists who’ve really advanced things, that was a part of their life. Not that they didn’t work hard … but we sometimes forget about the creative part of science.”

Ms Blackburn also advocates for less restrictive funding models for research, to allow for long term projects, arguing that constraining funding models to be reliant on six-monthly reports is too limiting.

‘When science becomes the grant itself, that’s a tragedy,” she said. ”The grant should be the launching pad for the science.”

Dr Blackburn also owns another notable distinction: that of being fired by the Bush administration

For just doing what I do, which is to say “get the science right, get the science right.” That wasn’t a very popular attitude in the Commission or the Council that I was serving on as an advisor.

That body was the President’s Council for Bioethics, a federal commission whose mandate is to advise on National Science policy. Dr Blackburn was dismissed after submitting a report stating that the scientific consensus was generally in favour of stem cell research. She was not the only respected scientist to fall foul of the Bush administration’s pattern of politics trumping science.

Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, Science

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8 replies

  1. I love that quote about daydreaming, just gorgeous.

  2. Seconded – I was always slagged for daydreaming at school, both by teachers and peers.
    Acourse, I never grew up to win the Nobel Prize, though… 😀

  3. Oh, and this thread is about Elizabeth Blackburn, who is FTW. I do love her.

  4. Psst… it’s telomerase. And it’s far from a trouble-free longevity candidate. Tumor cells have active telomerase: it can stop natural cellular senescence and make cells immortal (aka: cause cancer).

    • Thanks for the spelling correction, Athena. I chose my wording carefully about its potential in the study of cancer and longevity to avoid implying that it would necessarily be a cure, but it’s worth emphasising more clearly. From what I’ve read it seems that understanding how telomerase operates is going to be an important piece of the puzzle rather than a solution in itself.

  5. No worries, Viv! Of course, Blackburn richly deserved the Nobel — to say nothing of the unspeakable way she was treated by the Bushies.
    The reason I mentioned the direct connection of telomerase to cancer is that people are selling telomerase pills “for longevity” (expensive pills, too). Leaving aside the fact that the pills as sold now are almost certainly degraded in the stomach, if such pills really conferred longevity it would be at the cellular level, which would lead to tumors. Also, longevity will avail us none if don’t have the ability to retain and maintain our brain neurons.

  6. Dr Blackburn sounds wonderful — and Athena Andreadis is entirely correct; my government treated her abominably badly. It tends to do with science generally unless it has a few senators who really like the project.
    .-= kaninchenzero´s last blog ..[Trigger Warning] I Don’t Need Anyone to Blame Me =-.

    • k0,

      unless it has a few senators who really like the project

      That’s one of the things that really offended me about the swiftboating of Al Gore over the “he claims he invented the Internet (liar, liar)” canard.
      (a) he only ever claimed to have been instrumental in getting funding approved and revoted year after year in the crucial early evelopment period that extended ARPANet into the InterNet, not a single word about “inventing”
      (b) as you say, without a few US Senators really behind a big project, then it just doesn’t happen. Without him we really might not have the Web as we know it today, because who knows how the same basic distributed nodes idea might have been implemented in a different country?

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