Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Elizabeth Blackburn

The New York Times interviews cell biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, who studies telomeres, the "protective caps at the ends of chromosomes in cells." Aging and stress wear the telomeres down, exposing the chromosome ends to damage. The study of telomeres and the enzymes, telomerases, that build them, is a field dominated by women. Blackburn talked about that apparent anomaly in a 2001 interview with Nature:

According to the 'grandmother' of telomerase, Elizabeth Blackburn, it is not the case that women dominate telomerase research, it is more that this line of investigation has not seen the drop-off in women at higher ranks that happens in other fields. "In the telomerase field there's been a critical mass of women to sustain other women." That mass includes several female professors who were at one time under Blackburn's tutelage, such as Carol Greider, Janis Shampay, Vicki Lundblad, Drena Larson, Dorothy Shippen and Marita Cohn. The line continues with Blackburn's 'academic granddaughters' such as Maria Blasco and Chantal Autexier who are former students of Greider.

Blackburn, who has run her own lab in the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco since 1990, illustrates the gender disparity, "I was the only woman chair of a department in the School of Medicine here at UCSF. I've rotated off the chair and now there's another woman chair in another department but there's still only one woman chair."
Blackburn is not free of controversy. In 2004 she was dismissed from the President Bush's Council on Bioethics, apparently because her opinions on the study and use of embryonic stem cells weren't compatible with the administration's positions. She and another scientist were replaced by others with more conservative views.

While she might not be getting anywhere in politics, her star in the world of science is still rising. As Hsien at Eye on DNA points out, Blackburn won the Lasker Award (the "American Nobel)" in 2006, and is "rumored to be the next woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Hurrah!"

(Of course she hasn't been awarded the National Medal of Science.)

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