In Wake of Nobel Prize, Members of Blackburn Lab Reflect on an Unforgettable Day

For most people, pulling an all-nighter for work isn’t a cause for celebration.

But for the members of UCSF’s Blackburn Lab, the early hours of Oct. 5 were an opportunity to be part of something most scientists only dream of: a Nobel Prize-winning research lab.

Early that morning,  the Nobel committee in Stockholm, Sweden, named UCSF molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Blackburn shares the award with Carol Greider, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Jack Szostak, PhD, of Harvard Medical School.

“We were listening to them read the announcement and we couldn’t understand any of it,” recalled Kyle Lapham, a lab tech on Blackburn’s 14-person team. “It was basically: Swedish, Swedish, Swedish, ‘Elizabeth Blackburn,’ Swedish, Swedish, Swedish. And that’s all we needed to hear.”

Lapham and three of his coworkers had spent the hours leading up to the announcement at a fellow lab member’s apartment, and their anxiety quickly turned to exhilaration upon receiving the news.

“This was the first year we had a party the night before,” he said. “Last year, there was a lot of buzz around Liz and talk that she was on the so-called ‘short list,’ but this year the buzz was crazy.”

Lab manager and research specialist Dana Smith, who has worked with Blackburn for the past nine years in UCSF’s Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, read the news online and said it took a little while for her to process what had just occurred.

“I had to sit at my computer for half an hour reading all the news websites,” she said.

Smith and her colleagues saw Blackburn for the first time around 10 a.m. that day, when she arrived at Genentech Hall at UCSF Mission Bay, where her lab is based, for a reception that drew throngs of well-wishers from all corners of the University.

“It was really moving when we finally saw her and everyone was standing there clapping and cheering,” Smith said.

Several hours later, in a move that lab members describe as characteristic of Blackburn’s style, the world-renowned scientist put all interview requests and other obligations on hold so she and her team could enjoy a lunch of burgers and sandwiches at nearby restaurant The Ramp.

“She always says the lab is her first priority,” said Francesca Gazzaniga, a graduate student who is starting her second year in the lab. “It’s great to work with this powerful, brilliant woman who is really just so nice.”

Gazzaniga is not alone in feeling that way: members of the lab almost universally describe Blackburn as “friendly,” “humble,” and “down to earth.”

“Liz is very low-key,” said her assistant of three years, Toni Hurley. “It’s really important to her that her door is always open for the people working in her lab.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Blackburn is doing groundbreaking scientific work that merited not only the Nobel Prize, but also the prestigious Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 2006, among other honors.

Her co-discovery of the enzyme telomerase, which plays a key role in normal cell function, as well as in cell aging and most cancers, has been nothing short of revolutionary, said UCSF Chancellor Sue Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH.

“Her discovery has sparked a whole field of inquiry, and the research continues to unfold,” Desmond-Hellmann said during an Oct. 5 news conference.

Smith recalls first crossing paths with Blackburn at UC Berkeley, where she was working as a professor and where, in 1985, she and Greider first reported the discovery of telomerase.

“From the first time I heard her speak, it was clear she had this deep interest in what she was working on — this searing curiosity,” Smith said.

Two days after the Nobel announcement, the Blackburn Lab contained several telltale remnants of the momentous event that had taken place, including more than a dozen flower arrangements and the message “Congratulations, Liz” scrawled in huge letters on the whiteboard in the common area.

But for the most part, it was business as usual as the team got back to doing the work that has earned them global recognition. In fact, that work resumed about 12 hours after Blackburn’s historic achievement.

“We had the press conference, then some ‘mock science’ for the media photographers and then lunch with Liz,” said Smith. “Then we started to do real science again.”

In addition to Smith, Lapham, Gazzaniga, and Hurley, the Blackburn Lab includes: lab tech Josh Cheon; graduate students Beth Cimini, Kyle Jay and Tet Matsuguchi; postdoctoral fellows Imke Listerman and Brad Stohr; assistant research biochemists Shang Li, PhD, Jue Lin, PhD, Tanya Williams, PhD; and lab assistant Irma Easter.