Aging, Cancer and Stress

Elizabeth Blackburn's work on telomeres led to new research and discoveries

She remains keenly aware of the importance of scientific mentors—in her case, Sanger at Cambridge and Gall at Yale. "Sanger was supportive in a quiet way," she says. "He loved being in the lab and liked talking about science. It was important to feel that I could always converse with him." Gall was equally supportive. "Joe Gall was famous for having a good proportion of women postdocs who had done well," Blackburn says. "He would announce to the lab when one of his former students or postdocs got tenure. Joe realized it was important to be sending a positive message."

In her turn, Blackburn is quite serious about her own role as a mentor, particularly for women in science. "Carol Greider said the fact that I had a child was encouraging to her," Blackburn recalls. "It's important to show that you don't have to give your entire life over to science, that you can be successful by being smart and efficient and not always working long hours and weekends."

When Blackburn thinks about the future direction of her lab's work on telomerase, she has a two-pronged approach. "I would like to go deep into the chromosome and really understand what is happening structurally and functionally around the telomeres. This is a dynamic, robust system, like a buzzing bazaar with all sorts of molecules coming and going. I would love to understand the dynamics."

But it's also important to her that such deep knowledge be" applied to healing the body. What can knowledge add to the understanding of how things can go wrong? How can it help treat cancer, chronic stress, and heart disease? "We want to exploit knowledge of telomerase and telomeres to develop therapies at a cellular level," she says. Ambitious goals, to be sure. But considering how far Elizabeth Blackburn has already pushed the study of telomeres, such goals could well be within her grasp.