Carol Greider, Professor and Director of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the John Hopkins University, co-discovered the enzyme telomerase in 1984 when she was a graduate student of Elizabeth Blackburn at the University of California, Berkeley. Their research on the mechanism through which telomeres (DNA sequences repeated at the end of chromosomes which allow genetic information to be copied integrally every time the cell divides, formed by telomerase) protect chromosomes from degradation has been awarded last year with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The two women shared it with Jack W. Szostak. Greider leads a “curiosity driven” lab of ten people (3 men and 7 women including her) researching the role of telomeres and telomerase in chromosome maintenance and stability.
Is it true that you went to the first press conference after being announced the winner of the Nobel Prize wearing big glasses and fake moustache?
Yes, it was part of the fun.
Why did you do that?
There’s a famous picture of Barbara Mc Clintock after it had been announced that she had won the Nobel Prize (1983, for her discovery that the genetic material is not fixed but fluid) wearing Groucho Marx’s glasses so, as a joke, I wore them.
It was the same press conference where you brought your children. Why did you bring them?
They were just so excited I had won the Nobel Prize that they wanted to come with me, and they thought the day was wonderful. Everyone wanted to share everything with them, so they got to be with me the whole day, do everything they liked and got to miss one day of school.
Before you and Blackburn, only 8 women had won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, and with you, for the first time two women won it at the same time. What does this mean to you, if something?
I’m hoping there will be more women coming up in the future, I think they have contributed a lot to science and now that there’s a good number of women running research labs I would hope that this means that this is going to be a trend in the future, and that more will be winning prizes as well.
Do you see the trend going toward there?
I think the numbers are too small to say there’s already a trend but there’s usually a delay of 20 or 30 years between a discovery and the awarding of a Nobel Prize. Thirty years ago there were fewer women that were the heads of labs and a lot of changes happened in the intervening period. So I hope that that will be reflected in things like recognitions and awards.
They say winning the Nobel Prize means somehow the end of one’s career. What do you think about it?
I certainly don’t intend that to be true in my case (ha, ha, ha). I have a number of examples of scientists who have continued their career and have done many other important things for the public service, so I don’t see any link between the two things…
…Well, it’s a lot of money, maybe someone can say “Ok, I made it”
Yes, but we don’t do science in order to get awards. I do science because it’s interesting, because I really love finding out new things, so in this sense that changes nothing because what I really love to do is to find. You might think I made it only if the goal was to get a prize, but that was never the goal, the goal was to understand biology.
And how do you think you made it, as a woman, to get where you are and not to be gotten rid of on the way?
I think it’s just a certain amount of focus and that I was very excited about what I was doing, so I didn’t let the potential obstacles stand in my way. I had a number of people that were supportive of me and I just moved forward and didn’t worry about the people saying there were few women and this sort of things. Persevering and focusing on the thing I enjoy, which is finding out something new, that was unexpected. It’s kind of like solving a puzzle and it’s a lot of fun.
Are there moments in your life when you feel you’re not taken into account as much as if you were a man?
I think that I’m fairly well respected. Of course there still issues about the under-representation of women in higher positions in science that need to be solved but I don’t think that I have personally been treated differently because I was a woman.
Talking about the dominant male chauvinism I’ve heard you saying that you consider that it’s not that men have something against women, it’s just that they don’t think about us and tend –like sociology and psicology studies have shown human beings tend to do- to support those who are of the same sex. Now that you have a high position, Do you feel you do the same with women?
I definitely have in the back of my mind that women tend to be promoted later and I consider myself an advocate for women in terms of trying to change the devices that have been built up, but on a personal level on the science to science everyday I don’t treat people differently.
How do you manage to combine your career and your being a mother of two teenage children?
That, again, is the focus. When I am with my kids, I am with my kids spending time with them and people at work know that unless it’s really important they don’t usually call me and when I am at work, then I focus on what I am doing there.
From your personal experience, what do you think is the greatest issue concerning gender in science that has an urgent need to be resolved?
Under-representation of the 50% of the brain power of this world. A part of how to overcome it is by making people aware everyday of what choices we make. When you are putting a committee together, for instance, what representation of women do you have taking important decisions? And it has to happen from a real base level in addition to at the institutional level where people in power are wanting to make changes.
Where is your research heading you to?
We are trying to understand at basic level the role of telomeres shortening in different kinds of cancer and age-related degenerative diseases and we’re very interested in potential therapeutic treatments for them. We would like to approach questions about how to do it, whether it be with drugs activating telomeres, gene therapy or other options. There are a variety of different ideas and we are now doing experiments in mice (both females and males, looked at separately and across ages, since telomeres shorten with age) to see what would work.
Who is your research funded by?
All of my research has been supported by the National Institute of Health, which is very competitive. I spend probably more than 50% of my time writing research grants.
What’s your main ambition now?
Right now I’m looking forward to talking to the people in my lab, I have been out. I would like to take some time to look at the different projects we have and to think about them.
Is there one project you want to talk to me about?
Although most cancers express telomeres, around 10% of tumors don’t. We are very interested in why and how these tumors are growing without them because it might be a potential problem for the usage of telomeres inhibitors. We are trying to anticipate this problem.
Drawing: Valentina Meli
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