Salk Institute president and Nobel prize winner discusses her life in science

La Jolla Woman’s Club concluded its 2016 Women in Leadership speaker series Nov. 30 with a visit from Salk Institute president and Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn. About 100 guests filled the Woman’s Club at 7791 Draper Ave. to hear Blackburn discuss the importance of curiosity to her field, the science behind her prize-winning discoveries and her personal path to success. 

While introducing Blackburn, Woman’s Club president Mithu Sherin said, “We started our Women in Leadership speaker series in 2015. Last year, our focus was women in government. This year, our focus was women in science and that’s why we are so honored to have Elizabeth Blackburn here to speak to us.” 

She noted that Blackburn is the 18th president of the Salk Institute, having taken the helm earlier this year, and that Blackburn received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 (awarded jointly to Carol Greider and Jack Szostak) “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.”

Taking the podium, Blackburn pointed out, “There are very few women who have won the Nobel Prize and that’s particularly true in the sciences. I want people to see, by my example, ‘Look, you can be a woman and be in the sciences and win a Nobel Prize.’ ” 

She said she had a scientific passion her “entire adult life,” with a curiosity that began in childhood. “I grew up in Tasmania, which is a small island off of Australia, and that was really a place where you grow up exploring a treasure trove of natural wonders. In particular, I was really curious about animals. I wanted to see how they worked. 

“It worried my parents when I would pick up and examine poisonous jellyfish or stinging ants. ... I never mapped my scientific career, I just had this idea that being a scientist was what I wanted to do. I thought I would end up in biology or something. I developed a curiosity about molecules and how they work. I just thought they were the most beautiful things.” 

Blackburn earned her Ph.D. from Cambridge University in England under role models that would later win a Nobel Prize for DNA sequencing. During her educational career, sequencing and genomics were relatively new, which made the work that much more intriguing. “It’s always exciting to start in a field when it’s growing or in the very beginning. … Often making a path is much more exciting than following one,” she said. 

The topic of telomeres

Blackburn’s path took her to the study of telomeres. 

“Picture in your mind a shoelace and on the tip of it is that little aglet,” she explained. “Now imagine that in the cells of your body, there are hundreds of these little shoelace things in every cell. Each of those shoelaces is a chromosome found in the nucleus of each cell. These chromosome carry precious genetic information. We need those protective ends at the end of these chromosome shoelaces to protect that genetic information. But the problem is, sometimes those ends wear down. 

“Chromosomes replicate themselves all the time. There is a real problem when cells replicate, it is … a little bit like a copy machine. When you go to make a copy, with each print, a little bit gets faded or left off and that’s the copy machinery of the chromosomes and cells. Each time the chromosome copies and the cell divides, the telomeres get shorter and shorter.” 

In the course of her study, Blackburn found correlations between shorter telomeres and likelihood of chronic diseases, such as certain types of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. “We know when the telomeres run down enough, they cannot make a protective cap at the end of the chromosome, which sends a strong signal to cells and they do not multiply. And when cells don’t multiply, tissues don’t replenish,” she said. “Over a lifetime of say eight decades, the telomeres dwindle down due to the incomplete copying and are damaged by things like chemicals. It happens to all of us in our lives. So the question became: Does this matter?”

A study of 64,000 people would later suggest it does. For the study, Blackburn and associates measured telomere length and then waited seven years. At the end of that seven years, they looked at who died and why. The people with the shorter telomeres were more likely to die rather than those with longer ones. Larger studies are underway as to what to do when people discover they have short telomere length. 

Telomerase therapy 

In 1984, Blackburn discovered an enzyme that helps preserve telomere length, now known as telomerase. And while telomerase therapy is being pursued, Blackburn explained, “When longer telomeres are in (for example) cancer cells, it gives those cancer cells permission to grow and keep on multiplying. So we have to walk a fine line between too much and too little. So using telomerase therapy is like playing with fire.” 

Instead, she said there are some environmental factors that can have a positive and negative influence on telomere length. Negative influences include stress, depression, poor diet, tobacco use, childhood trauma and more, and positive include exercise, sleep, ingestion of omega-3s and more. 

Getting ‘the call’

Her work, though ongoing, got the attention of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Joking that “everyone asks me about winning the Nobel Prize,” she recalled the day she found out. 

“In 2009, I got a phone call at 2 a.m. and I don’t know how you react when your phone rings at 2 a.m., but I immediately thought it was something bad — especially because my mother-in-law was 95 at that point. I thought something’s happened to her. But when I answered the phone, this Swedish voice told me I had won the Nobel Prize. At first, I didn’t really believe him. I think he could tell that, and told me the media would be calling soon and advised me to have a cup of coffee,” she said. 

As a recipient of the Nobel Prize, Blackburn said she enjoys speaking, especially when it gives her the platform to advocate for more women in sciences. “Curiosity-driven science really gets you some place and that couldn’t be more true than in the biological sciences because what comes from it really matters to human health. We need to have increasing and more diverse curiosity-driven scientists because that is going to make projects happen that will really have an impact,” she said. 

Her advice to young women: “Stay focused and stay persistent. Try to get yourself into a place where research is being done to find out if you like it. So many young people read about a branch of science and then they find out it’s not for them. Know your skills and what field these skills would best serve. To quote the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science initiative, ‘Women need science and science needs women.’ ”

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