To celebrate & to reflect: Women’s Day as seen by Elizabeth Blackburn

To mark International Women’s Day, Professor Elizabeth Blackburn gives an exclusive account of the discoveries that secured her place in history as one of the few women scientists to have won a Nobel Prize. Blackburn also explains why we should pause for reflection on International Women’s Day.

DiscovHER - You won a Nobel Prize in 2009 for discovering an enzyme that replenishes and repairs frayed telomere. Can you tell us more about your research and how crucial it is for our health?

Elizabeth Blackburn - The importance of Telomeres and their Maintenance

I discovered that the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes, called telomeres, are made of special DNA. Together with their specifically-bound proteins, telomeres "book-end" chromosomes to protect the ends from damage and erosion. Telomeres allow cells to divide while holding the genetic material intact. Every time cells divide, unless a process of telomere elongation intervenes, telomeres progressively shorten until, eventually, the cells die. Thus telomere length is analogous to a "fuse" that determines the lifespan of cells – when the telomere “fuse” in cells becomes too short, loss of cell functions and replenishment capability can result, and even genomic instability, that can lead to cancers.

This shortening process can be slowed, prevented or even reversed by the enzyme telomerase, which I co-discovered with my student, Carol Greider. Telomerase is in crucial human cell types, and can rebuild back the telomeres as they get too short. Thus, Telomerase can effectively turn back the hands of the ticking clock. The degree of telomerase action therefore is a key factor in counteracting telomere shortening. However, many human cells do not have sufficient telomerase to do this as we age.

Telomere shortening has been linked to the aging process in humans. In a variety of clinical cohorts, telomere length is emerging statistically as a marker for aging . Telomere shortening also can contribute to development of major chronic diseases that become more prevalent with aging – including cardiovascular disease, cancers, diabetes, diseases of poor tissue replenishment and diseases of poor immune function, inflammation, and a higher risk of mortality.

D/H - Are there any other scientific subjects that stimulate you?

EB - I love to follow the advances in cosmology, although I am not an expert in this area.

D/H - How did yourinterest in science originate?

EB - When I think back to my own motivation and inspiration that led to my career in science, one important factor was love for animals and nature and fascination as a child in understanding how living things worked. This drew me to a path of learning more about living things. I was in awe of the natural word for its extraordinariness. That feeling has never left me. And now more than ever, it is so important that we use the best science to sustain the natural world around us, with all its fragility and beauty and wonder.

D/H - You are among the 5 women awarded the Nobel Prize since 1998 (For Women In Science program's birth year). Do you find this figure surprising?

EB - Yes, because women can and have contributed so much to science. However at another level I am not surprised, because it is true that historically - and still sometimes now - that their contributions are not recognized as well as men’s contributions, and their opportunities have been limited.

D/H - Today is International Women's Day. What does it mean for you? Does it evoke anything special for you, regarding your scientific career?

EB - It is important to celebrate. But it is also important to reflect. Having too few women in science does not do science any good. Women can do science just as well as men, so having fewer women in science equates to a great loss of talent in science. Furthermore, it is important never to forget that science is a creative endeavor. Along with its more familiar aspects – for example, understanding what are necessary rigorous standards of proof - doing science is also letting the imagination be open to new ideas and lateral leaps that might at first seem outlandish. Women and men can be creative in different ways. Research needs to be able to roam freely and explore ways of thinking that are not necessarily obvious from the start.

More about Professor Elizabeth Blackburn:

For Women in Science

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