Campus Applauds Fourth Nobel Prize-Winning Scientist

By Lisa Cisneros

Elizabeth Blackburn raising a glass of champagne
Photo by Elisabeth Fall

Symbolizing a major triumph for UCSF, the University of California and the scientific community at large, molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, on Monday became UCSF’s fourth scientist to be tapped to receive the prestigious Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Blackburn, who had awoken in her San Francisco home to a 2 a.m. call from Stockholm, Sweden, told an audience gathered at a news conference shortly before noon that the significance of the honor was just starting to sink in.

“You know the five stages of grief? Well, I’ve gone through the five stages of happiness,” she said, describing her initial disbelief.

Although the media buzz on Blackburn had her on the short list of those predicted to win the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, she had heard those comments before and so was still surprised to get the news from a representative of the Nobel Prize committee. “There’s so much wonderful science that goes on, with so many fantastic scientists, that the chances of it happening to you seem very remote,” she said.

For many of her UCSF colleagues crowded in the Genentech Hall atrium at the reception, the tribute to Blackburn was more than a celebration of a scientific discovery. It was also a testament to the woman who has been an inspiration to students, scholars and scientists – who, in turn, praise her as a mentor, collaborator and trailblazer.

“This is quite an exciting moment in an extraordinary career,” said UCSF Chancellor Sue Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH. “It is fantastic for Elizabeth Blackburn and members of her lab, past and present.”

Turning toward Blackburn with champagne in hand, Desmond-Hellmann said, “You represent the best of biomedical science. But even more important is your generosity and your spirit. Your gracious manner, strength and wisdom have made you a beloved member of the UCSF community.”

Role of Graduate Students

Blackburn acknowledged that she and her co-recipients, Carol W. Greider, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Jack W. Szostak, PhD, of Harvard Medical School, had “planted some sort of humble seeds, and now we’ve seen tremendous” advances by others to build on the research into telomerase, an enzyme that plays a key role in normal cell function as well as in cell aging and most cancers.

One of the first calls that Blackburn made shortly after 2 a.m. on Monday was to congratulate Greider, who had been a graduate student working in her lab at UC Berkeley in the 1980s when they made the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the telomerase enzyme.

Graduate students “are the lifeblood of how a new generation of science is happening,” Blackburn said at the news conference. “Graduate students have creativity, and I think the worst thing to do is not let that creativity blossom. And so the question is, How do you grow a graduate student? You want them to nurture their own ideas and help them become independent.”

UCSF scientist Cynthia Kenyon, PhD, director of the Center on Aging, was a graduate student herself in the 1970s when she first met Blackburn. “Even then, she was so enthusiastic, so passionate about science. It really made an impression on me,” Kenyon said. “She is such a good scientist, a pioneer with a pure love of discovery.”

Patricia Calarco, PhD, dean of the UCSF Graduate Division, credited Blackburn for being a gifted mentor and teacher to graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. “Very often, the most exciting advances in the lab come from graduate students and postdocs,” she said. “That’s part of why we can recruit excellent young faculty: They know when they come here, they get to work with the best. For such a small campus, we really carry our weight worldwide.”

Women in Science

For Blackburn, the first Australian woman to receive the Nobel Prize, the inspiration to pursue a scientific career came in part from her physician parents and in part from “being totally captivated” by reading, when she was a young girl, the biography of two-time Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie.

“My parents were both family physicians,” Blackburn said. “My mother had friends who, like her, had been educated, so it seemed very natural to me that women would be having interesting careers and be educated well and so forth. So I just saw that and, I think, took that in.”

Blackburn says the gender gap in the elite group of Nobel Prize awardees will narrow with time. “As we have more and more women who come into the research career track, so [there will be more] examples of people like Carol and myself, who have been able to have productive, exciting careers. I think just seeing that it can be done – just seeing a woman’s face who won a Nobel Prize – says to young women, ‘This is not impossible.’”

Desmond-Hellmann, UCSF’s first woman to be named chancellor, said Blackburn is a role model for all scientists.

“It’s been from a near distance in my former role at Genentech that I first observed the impact Elizabeth Blackburn had, and continues to have, in the field of biomedical research,” Desmond-Hellmann said. “Her discovery has sparked a whole field of inquiry, and the research continues to unfold.

“As a fellow woman scientist, I’m proud that this distinguished researcher has been recognized,” added Desmond-Hellmann, who presented Blackburn with a proclamation from Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office, declaring Oct. 5, 2009, as “Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn Day” in San Francisco.

Reflection of UC System

Blackburn stressed that she and her colleagues thrive in the academic research environment that the University of California offers. The goals of academic research are very different than those of corporate research enterprises, she explained, because scientists are free to pursue questions that are not necessarily for commercial purposes or for finding an end product.

“This is such a recognition of the UC system that I was able to have the opportunity to do this research,” she said. “The UC system lets research happen in ways that go in all sorts of unexpected directions.”

Blackburn is hoping for more of the same, but acknowledges that budget challenges are taking a toll on the academic and research missions of UCSF and the University of California. She says it is important for the UC system to maintain access and affordability, so students can get a quality university education.

“I think UC is a huge boon to the state of California,” Blackburn said. “It’s a wellspring of ideas, of educated people, of innovation. And it sort of breaks my heart to see it being under attack – I do not mean that literally, but in this sad state. So we really need to do what we can to ameliorate this situation because what UC brings to the state is huge.

“I have been a tremendous beneficiary of it,” Blackburn added. “I was able to do research with really tremendous colleagues, students and trainees who were attracted to the UC system because it has such high standards.”

Robin Hindery contributed to this report.