Q. IS IT TRUE THAT YOU WERE DOING LAUNDRY WHEN YOU GOT THAT EARLY MORNING CALL FROM STOCKHOLM?
Matt Roth for The New York Times
WINNER Dr. Carol W. Greider of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
A. Yes. I don’t usually do the laundry so early in the morning, but I was already up, and there was all this laundry staring at me. I was supposed to later meet two women friends to take our morning spin class. People had speculated that sometime in the next five years, something like this might happen. And last year people said, “Maybe, it will be, ” and it wasn’t. Reuters had made this prediction that we might get it this time. But I really didn’t have any idea. Maybe it would never happen. There are important fundamental discoveries that never get prizes. After I got the call, I sent my friend an e-mail: “I’m sorry I can’t spin right now. I’ve won the Nobel Prize.”
Q. DID YOU ALWAYS WANT TO BE A BIOLOGIST?
A. My parents were scientists. But I wasn’t the sort of child who did science fairs. One of the things I was thinking about today is that as a kid I had dyslexia. I had a lot of trouble in school and was put into remedial classes. I thought that I was stupid.
Q. THAT MUST HAVE HURT.
A. Sure. Yes. It was hard to overcome that. I kept thinking of ways to compensate. I learned to memorize things very well because I just couldn’t spell words. So later when I got to take classes like chemistry and anatomy where I had to memorize things, it turned out I was very good at that.
I never planned a career. I had these blinders on that got me through a lot of things that might have been obstacles. I just went forward. It’s a skill that I had early on that must have been adaptive. I enjoyed biology in high school and that brought me to a research lab at U.C. Santa Barbara. I loved doing experiments and I had fun with them. I realized this kind of problem-solving fit my intellectual style. So in order to continue having fun, I decided to go to graduate school at Berkeley. It was there that I went to Liz Blackburn’s lab, where telomeres were being studied.
Q. WHAT ARE TELOMERES?
A. The concept of telomeres was really laid out by H. J. Muller and Barbara McClintock in the 1940s, when they showed that there must be a special unit, a kind of cap at the end of the chromosome that holds it together. In 1978, Elizabeth Blackburn, working with Joe Gall, identified the DNA sequence of telomeres.
Every time a cell divides, it gets shorter. But telomeres usually don’t. So there must be something happening to the telomeres to keep their length in equilibrium. When I went into Liz Blackburn’s lab in 1984 and began working on this, the most exciting question that was being asked there was, “If we know that telomeres get short over time, how can they be relengthened?” I set out to look for evidence that there was such an enzyme as telomerase that would relengthen the telemeres once they shortened.
What I found out on Christmas Day 1984, through biochemical evidence, was that telomeres could be lengthened by the enzyme we called telomerase, which keeps the telomeres from wearing down. After, I found that out, I went home and put on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” which was just out, and I danced and danced and danced.
Q. WHY WAS THAT IMPORTANT?
A. Because broken or shortened telomeres are implicated in a whole group of diseases. Five or six years later, we and other groups discovered that telomere shortening played a role in the inability of cells to divide after a certain number of divisions — as well as in cancer. So the possibility of a biochemical therapy for some of these diseases was now something that could be explored.
Q. IT’S BEEN SAID THAT YOU AND DR. BLACKBURN DIDN’T RECEIVE THE NOBEL PRIZE EARLIER BECAUSE IT HADN’T YET BEEN PROVED THAT TELOMERES AND TELOMERASE WOULD BE VALUABLE IN UNDERSTANDING DISEASE. DOES THE PRIZE THIS YEAR MEAN THAT THERE NOW IS AN ACCEPTANCE OF THEIR VALUE?
A. I certainly hope so. That’s why Nobel Prizes are usually awarded long after the original discovery. It takes time for the medical implications to become clear. I think it’s clear now that the basic science we did is important to understanding cancers, some human genetic diseases and the age associated degenerative diseases. The clinical relevance still needs to be understood in the medical community.
Q. MANY REPORTERS HAVE ASKED WHY TELOMERES RESEARCH SEEMS TO ATTRACT SO MANY FEMALE INVESTIGATORS. WHAT’S YOUR ANSWER?
A. There’s nothing about the topic that attracts women. It’s probably more the founder effect. Women researchers were fostered early on by Joe Gall, and they got jobs around the country and they trained other women. I think there’s a slight bias of women to work for women because there’s still a slight cultural bias for men to help men. The derogatory term is the “old boys network.” It’s not that they are biased against women or want to hurt them. They just don’t think of them. And they often feel more comfortable promoting their male colleagues.
When Lawrence Summers, then the Harvard president, made that statement a few years ago about why there were fewer successful women in science, I thought, “Oh, he couldn’t really mean that.”’ After reading the actual transcript of his statement, it seems he really did say that women can’t think in that sort of scientific fashion. It was ridiculous!
I mean, women do things differently, which is why I think it would be important if more women were at higher levels in academic medicine. I think people might work together more, things might be more collaborative. It would change how science is done and even how institutions are run. That doesn’t mean that women necessarily have a different way of thinking about the mechanics of experiments. I think it’s more a different social way of interacting that would bring results in differently.Q. DO THIS YEAR’S NOBELS MEAN THAT WOMEN HAVE FINALLY BEEN ACCEPTED IN SCIENCE?
A. I certainly hope it’s a sign that things are going to be different in the future. But I’m a scientist, right? This is one event. I’m not going to see one event and say it’s a trend. I hope it is. One of the things I did with the press conference that Johns Hopkins gave was to have my two kids there. In the newspapers, there’s a picture of me and my kids right there. How many men have won the Nobel in the last few years, and they have kids the same age as mine, and their kids aren’t in the picture? That’s a big difference, right? And that makes a statement.
Carol W. Greider of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine was one of three women who won a science Nobel last week, which puts her in some rare company. Only eight women had won in physiology or medicine, and there has never been a year when three women won Nobels in the sciences. Dr. Greider shared her prize with Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Jack W. Szostak for their research on telomeres.