Blackburn Gets Personal, Reflects on Path Leading Up to Nobel Prize

A week after being named UCSF’s—and her native Australia’s—first woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, sat down with UCSF Chancellor Sue Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, to discuss the elusive goal of work-life balance and the importance of following one’s passions and making time for “intense relaxation.”

The conversation in Cole Hall on Oct. 13 was Blackburn’s first formal appearance at UCSF since the day of the Nobel Prize announcement on Oct. 5. She shares the award with Carol Greider, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Jack Szostak, PhD, of Harvard Medical School, for their co-discovery of an enzyme, telomerase, that plays a key role in normal cell function, as well as in cell aging and most cancers.

Blackburn’s conversation with the Chancellor, which took place before an audience of students from both UCSF and local high schools, focused less on the formal science behind Blackburn’s award-winning research and more on her background and career leading up to that historic achievement.

Blackburn said she first really became interested in science in high school, when she started reading textbooks describing “ideas of how the molecules of life work.” That got her thinking about the huge implications of understanding basic cellular biology, the field to which she would devote the next four decades of her life, she said.

Plus, she joked, she wasn’t skilled enough to make a career out of her other passion, playing the piano, thus a career in science seemed like the most logical path.

Following Her Heart

Though her family was supportive of her choice, Blackburn said she didn’t always receive the full support of her friends, and some even tried to talk her out of becoming a scientist.

“I learned somewhat of an ability to sort of not hear those things, and I was pretty good at hearing what I wanted to hear,” she said. “If you start to get a sense of — you do think you know what you are interested in, a lot of people will advise you. On the one hand you want to listen, and on the other hand you want to test it and say, ‘Okay, is this really making sense, or is it just that somebody I really respect said this?’”

Blackburn followed her heart and continued to pursue her love of science, which took her from the University of Melbourne, Australia, to the University of Cambridge, England, where she received her PhD. She then accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University and, later, a faculty position at UC Berkeley before joining the UCSF Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics in 1990.

Along the way, Blackburn said she benefitted tremendously from good mentors, particularly Joseph Gall, PhD, her principle investigator at Yale, who has made major contributions to the field of chromosome structure and function.
Blackburn said she has modeled her own lab leadership after Gall and others.

“I just try to copy what they did in various settings,” she said, emphasizing the importance of treating lab members with respect and remembering that “every graduate student is an individual and everybody has a different way of doing science, approaching science.”

In addition to her successes and career highs, Blackburn described periods of self-doubt and fear, such as her search for a job after leaving Gall’s lab.

“That was the most discouraging time for me,” she said. “I was very much daunted and overcome by the challenges of finding jobs.”
Blackburn said she still keeps a file filled with all of her rejection letters from various universities.

“You have to kind of be tough,” she said of weathering those disappointments.

Balancing Work and Family

In reflecting on her career, Blackburn also tried to dispel some of the myths behind the idea of work-life balance, saying it was a worthy long-term goal, but not something that can be accomplished and maintained all the time.

“I understand family and career balance…and I think it can be over the years that the balance can be achieved, but not every single day necessarily,” she said.

In her own life, she and her husband John Sedat, PhD, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF, have prioritized different things at different times. When their son Benjamin was growing up, for example, the couple “just focused on science and family” and gave up going to the movies and restaurants, Blackburn said. Now that Benjamin is 22 and out of the house, there is more time to spend on such activities, she said.

Of course, Blackburn stressed, no matter what one’s daily routine, it is important to take periodic breaks and unwind — a bit of advice she summed up as, “Work hard, play hard.”

“Having intense relaxation is very important, such as traveling or something where you turn your mind off,” she said, adding that such periods of escape can actually lead to greater creativity and productivity.

Looking ahead, Blackburn said she plans to keep digging deeper to find out more about telomerase and the links between the enzyme and conditions such as chronic stress, cancer and age-related diseases. In the process, she will continue to collaborate with scientists at UCSF and elsewhere and “run with interesting ideas,” she said.

“I have a job still. There’s a lot to be learned,” she said.