Nobel-winning mother: Students hear how to balance science with life

22 Jun 2012

Even the most driven scientists can balance their personal lives with a fascinating and inquisitive career, says Australia's first female Nobel Laureate.

Professor Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, who won a Nobel Prize for her work discovering the “ends of DNA”, presented the Hooked on Science lecture for high school students at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at The University of Queensland.

Professor Blackburn told students she managed to integrate her scientific work with a busy family life, even after she became a mother.

The key, she said, was collaborations with friends and family– as well as scientists, mentors and students - that helped her through this very busy part of her life.

Born in Tasmania, Professor Blackburn went on to complete her PhD at the University of Cambridge in England before taking up a post-doctoral position at Yale University in Boston and then, moving to California.

At Cambridge, she worked with Professor Fred Sanger, an English biochemist and a two-time Nobel Laureate in chemistry, who pioneered DNA sequencing. This opportunity allowed her to be the first to sequence the ends of DNA known as telomeres.

From there, her interest in the role of telomeres grew. She moved on to researching the ability of telomeres to attach telomeric repeats, or small DNA building blocks, that she believed may be able to protect the DNA from damage.

She and student Carol Greider went on to find the enzyme responsible for attaching the repeats to the chromosome ends and called it telomerase, a discovery for which she shared the Nobel Prize in 2009.

At the lecture, Professor Blackburn told the students that a successful scientist was likely to have an open and inquiring mind, to have a sense of the possible, to be “willing to look beyond the dogma of a topic” and to truly enjoy both their work and home environments.

Year nine student Jennifer Vu said she was inspired and motivated by the lecture.

“One thing that I learnt in particular was that, in order to make a large step, small steps need to be taken first in case of a fall or accident. She allowed me to fathom situations at a smaller perspective and gradually build on that knowledge, expanding and researching to answer a question to its fullest potential,” she said.

Professor Blackburn is currently collaborating on an ambitious project to identify diseases related to telomeres and their dysfunction and to find therapies and cures for these conditions.

Media: Olga Chaourova, Institute for Molecular Bioscience, (07 3346 2196 or