Saturday, June 22, 2013

189: The Self-Empowered Woman: Elizabeth H. Blackburn & DNA

Dear Followers,


Today I’d like to introduce you to a remarkable woman who made a major discovery that should be of interest to anyone who wants to look and/or feel as young as possible in spite of the passing years. Elizabeth H Blackburn, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for her groundbreaking discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase, is considered America’s expert when it comes to the factors that connect emotional stress, health and DNA to aging.

Blackburn was born in Australia in 1948, to a family composed of doctors and scientists. Both of her parents were doctors, and her maternal grandfather and great-grandfather were geologists. Additionally, her father’s sister and her mother’s brother were also family physicians.

As a young child, Blackburn would pick up ants in her backyard and jellyfish on the beach, and was known for keeping tadpoles in glass jars. She was the second child of seven siblings and the family’s home was full of pets and animals, in her words, “all over the house and garden.” Perhaps because of her love of animals, from an early age she was fascinated by biology, and the biography of Marie Curie was her favorite childhood book. By the time she was a teenager, she had made up her mind to become a scientist (2: An Early Sense Of Direction).

Although it sounds like an idyllic Australian childhood, there were problems. Her father was rarely home, and Blackburn told her biographer that she longed for his attention. He drank too much, and when she was a teenager her parents separated (1: No Paternal Safety Net).

On her own with so many children, Blackburn’s mother suffered from depression, which sometimes required hospital stays. For this reason (as well as the fact that the young Blackburn didn’t want to be judged or pitied), she rarely invited friends to her home (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest).

Fortunately, she was able to attend Broadland House Girls Grammar School, where she received an excellent education. Her two regrets are that neither Greek nor Physics (which she learned at the local public high school in evening classes) was offered at her school. She was, however, able to study piano, which she loved enough to "wistfully hope" that she could become a musician (9: Music).

During her teenage years, schoolwork (instead of friendships) became her focus, and she excelled, particularly when few female students were focusing on science. She majored in biochemistry at the University of Melbourne, and moved to England to earn her PhD at Cambridge. During that time she became an expert in DNA sequencing (7: Magnificent Obsession).

As if moving to England were not enough of a radical change, in 1975 Blackburn moved to America where she became a post doctoral fellow at Yale, where her fiancee (John Sedat) would be teaching. They married in 1975, and moved to San Francisco where both Blackburn and her husband worked at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Ultimately, in 1986, she moved again to become a professor--with her own laboratory--at the University of California, Berkeley (14: Selective Disassociation).

In 1989, three years after the birth of her son, Benjamin, she decided that  the drive from the family to Berkeley each day simply became too much.  So she--and her laboratory--relocated to UCSF.  Blackburn was president of the American Society for Cell Biology in 1998, and in late 2001 joined the President's Council on Bioethics.  She disagreed with some of the council's recommendations (11: Risk Addiction), and after two years the personnel office of the George W. Bush White House informed her that she would no longer be on the council.

In 2009, Dr. Blackburn, one of her researchers (Dr. Carol W. Grieder) and Harvard's Dr. Jack W. Szostak won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the enzyme telomerase (8: Turning No Into Yes). Until then, only eight women had won Nobel Prizes in Medicine.

Dr. Blackburn has discovered that traumatic events early in life can affect both telomeres and health for decades afterwards.  She is currently researching the impact of meditation on telomeres.  Her hope is to offer testing to the public within the year because unusually short telomeres may indicate a health problem.  She feels that measuring telomeres could become part of a new direction in medicine--one that could "intercept" disease. 

Working in a primarily male-dominated field has brought a number of challenges to Dr. Blackburn's career. In fact, at one point she admitted that when younger "I would have been a little afraid to do things because my male colleagues wouldn't have taken me seriously as a molecular biologist."  Now, however, "Being senior enough in the field, having enough solidity, I don't feel afraid of being marginalized" (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

Looking forward to your comments...

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