Elizabeth Blackburn and the Story of Telomeres
Molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn—one of Time magazine’s 100 “Most Influential People in the World” in 2007—made headlines in 2004 when she was dismissed from the President's Council on Bioethics after objecting to the council's call for a moratorium on stem cell research and protesting the suppression of relevant scientific evidence in its final report. But it is Blackburn's groundbreaking work on telomeric DNA, which launched the field of telomere research, that will have the more profound and long-lasting effect on science and society. In this compelling biography, Catherine Brady tells the story of Elizabeth Blackburn's life and work and the emergence of a new field of scientific research on the specialized ends of chromosomes and the telomerase enzyme that extends them.
In the early stages of telomere research, telomerase, heralded as a potential cure for cancer and diseases related to aging, attracted the voracious interest of biotech companies. The surrounding hype succeeded in confusing the role of telemorase in extending the life of a cell with a mechanism that might extend the lifespan of an entire organism. In Brady's hands, Blackburn's story reveals much about the tension between pure and applied science, the politicking that makes research science such a competitive field, and the resourceful opportunism that characterizes the best scientific thinking.
Brady describes the science accessibly and compellingly. She explores Blackburn's struggle to break down barriers in an elite, male-dominated profession, her role as a mentor to other women scientists (many of whom have made their mark in telomere research), and the collaborative nature of scientific work. This book gives us a vivid portrait of an exceptional woman and a new understanding of the combination of curiosity, imaginative speculation, and aesthetic delight that powers scientific discovery.
About the Author
Catherine Brady is Assistant Professor in the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of two collections of short stories, The End of the Class War and Curled in the Bed of Love (a winner of the 2002 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction).
"Catherine Brady's Elizabeth Blackburn and the Story of Telomeres offers a commanding account of an inspiring effort to overcome gender bias along with advice about doing science, conquering academic politics, and taking responsible positions on science policy."—Science
"Although Blackburn is certainly not an average woman scientist, there are many features of her journey that others who are interested in medical science—women and men alike—will connect with.", Thomas R. Cech, Ph.D., England Journal of Medicine
"In this superb biography of superstar molecular biologist, Elizabeth Blackburn, Catherine Brady tells exactly how Blackburn made her great discoveries. She also reveals the traits of mind and educational experiences that make Blackburn such a great scientist: a life-long passion for nature, brilliance, creativity, a superb postdoctoral mentor, single-mindedness bordering on obsession, and—as a woman in a man's world—the wisdom to hide her vast ambition beneath the guise of a sweet, well-behaved young lady. An inspiring account of a real-life heroine, and a lesson in how to conduct Nobel-quality research."
—Nancy Hopkins, Amgen, Inc. Professor of Biology, MIT
"Brady's stories tell us about a prize-winning scientist, a professional woman, and a humble person driven by voracious curiosity. She captures and unleashes into print the combination of creativity, passion, and pugnaciousness that makes Elizabeth Blackburn such an inspiration."
—Kathleen Collins, Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of California, Berkeley
"This book tells the story not only of a person, Elizabeth Blackburn, but also of a scientific field, the molecular analysis of telomeres, chromosome ends, from the viewpoint of its founder and major contributor. One of the most remarkable aspects of this story is how a somewhat esoteric subject, the analysis of chromosome ends, studied in a rather obscure model organism, a ciliated protozoan, can translate into discoveries that have a profound impact on human health and disease. This book illustrates how the story of telomeres is both a triumph and a validation for basic scientific research. In addition, it highlights the difficulties faced by women in the male dominated world of science and reveals the impact of politics on scientific discovery."
—Virginia Zakian, Harry C. Wiess Professor in the Life Sciences and Professor of Molecular Biology,Princeton University