It is 8:00 am Pacific time and Elizabeth Blackburn, Nobel Laureate and President of the jury for the 2016 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women In Science (FWIS) awards, which she won in 2008, takes time out to speak to us about the place of women in science.
Organisation and passion: advice for female scientists from a Nobel Laureate
“Manage your time carefully”
“It is perfectly possible to be a scientist and still have a family.” The first piece of received wisdom to be debunked, then, is the notion that the pace of work and long hours logged in the lab stop women from becoming great scientists. Professor Blackburn says it is all down to careful time management.
At work first of all. Working days nowadays tend to be interrupted affairs, broken up by meetings that can derail productivity: “Scientists need plenty of time to think. I am more creative in the morning so I need to protect that time to concentrate on my research”.
Besides improving their productivity, scientists have to manage the trade-off between an intense professional life and family life. That means making choices: “You have to give up the less important stuff and resist the temptation to keep working, say, visit with colleagues after dinner, or go out in the evening to see a concert”. Professor Blackburn believes that these distractions have to take a back seat behind family life for a few years. Living in a picture-perfect house has never been her priority either – “and nor was it in the home where I grew up with six brothers and sisters”. It plainly hasn’t done her any harm.
Professor Blackburn draws a more general lesson from this question of time management, turning it into a piece of advice for all scientists: “We learn to solve problems. We need to apply our methodology to other areas of our lives”.
The life that led to a Nobel
“I knew before I turned ten that I wanted to be a scientist.” Elizabeth Blackburn grew up in Tasmania, Australia, and showed a keen interest in animals, plants and nature generally from a tender age. “I was drawn to biology because I felt it would allow me to understand how the things I saw around me worked. More theoretical disciplines such as mathematics I viewed as tools.”
Men outnumber women in the post-doc world, a situation that can lead to fairly uniform schools of thought. Women often find themselves on the outside, says Professor Blackburn: “I have devoted my scientific career to telomeres, structures that protect the ends of our chromosomes and whose shortening is linked to cellular ageing. I brought a fresh way of looking at telomere dynamics”. In 1985, she and Carol Greider discovered telomerase, an enzyme that regulates the length of telomeres, earning them the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Professor Blackburn continues to forge ahead. Open to scientific inquiry – she believes women have a more collaborative bent – she was approached by Elissa Epel, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and a specialist in human psychology. “We know that stress has physiological effects. She asked me if these effects could be felt at the telomere level. We discovered a relationship between stress and the shortening of telomeres.” The effects of stress could increase the likelihood of developing cardiovascular illnesses, impact the immune system and promote the onset of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Could mindfulness or meditation offer a way to positively impact telomere length and protect our chromosomes?
The power of role models
Offering a new social role model
Women scientists often tell Elizabeth Blackburn that she is a role model for them. “Hopefully sharing my story is a way to encourage more women to pursue their scientific careers”. This is why she is taking on leadership roles, such as President of the FWIS 2016 jury and of the renowned Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
Professor Blackburn is keenly aware of the power of role models. In her pre-teen years, she devoured Marie Curie’s biography: “It was an incredible source of inspiration. Science seemed so noble and exciting. I really saw myself in that discipline”. Did Curie influence her decision to become a biologist? “Definitely.” Another important model for Professor Blackburn was her mother. “She’s more like my life model”, she jokes. The principles that she lives by now are the same as those she grew up with. “My parents were both doctors and my mother worked part-time. She was passionate about her work but also very committed to her family.”
“No one specifically encouraged me to become a scientist and almost no-one discouraged me.” She says “almost” because a schoolteacher asked one day what a nice girl like her was doing going into science. She was stunned: “I felt like I was failing in the social role expected of me, at an age when the judgement of others mattered a lot. But that was back in the 60s!”
Sexism is “subtler” nowadays. She herself was not aware of it until later in her career: “Perhaps I didn’t notice it when I was younger – I was pretty humble”. So how does it manifest itself? Not being paid the same attention as a man is an example, but women face other, bigger, barriers: “I have never suffered from this personally in my career, but I know of female colleagues who have been unfairly treated compared with their male counterparts”.
What is needed are different social role models who “show what a woman scientist can be”. Professor Blackburn says that these admirable figures should have outstanding scientific qualities while also being female role models. These are the types of women she hopes to showcase with the FWIS programme.
What FWIS changes
“We select candidates based on scientific excellence, but they often have inspiring stories and journeys as well.” Among the new developments for the 2016 programme chaired by Professor Blackburn, a collaborative project is receiving an award for the first time. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna have discovered a molecular mechanism that is capable of cutting and splicing DNA, opening up the possibility of new treatments for genetic conditions. “This illustrates just how exciting and creative science is, and how it can be helped by interaction between researchers.”
These interactions are at the heart of the FWIS event, which Professor Blackburn sees as an opportunity to connect with up-and-coming scientists, including the laureates of course, but also FWIS grant recipients: “We can share advice on the academic front but also make suggestions on more personal questions such as time organisation”.
She certainly has a few stories to get the future scientists dreaming, including the time in her lab when she saw the future Nobel-winning telomerase enzyme for the first time: “I said to myself ‘Oh, that’s exciting!”.