Profile of Nobel Prize Winner Carol Greider, a Johns Hopkins Molecular Biologist

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By Liza Mundy
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Partway through an interview, Carol Greider's cellphone emits the special ring she has set to indicate the caller is one of her two children. Greider, a molecular biologist at Johns Hopkins who this year became one of only 10 women to win the Nobel Prize in medicine, is at her phone in a split second. The caller is her 9-year-old daughter, Gwendolyn, who has gotten out of school.

"How was Spirit Day?" Greider asks. They chat -- a babysitter is at home -- then she rings off. Nearby is a pile of handmade cards from Gwendolyn's fourth-grade class, the members of which have different ideas about for what, exactly, Greider has won the prize.

Twenty-five years ago, as an exceptionally gifted graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, Greider, now 48, visited her lab to check an experiment, and discovered evidence of an enzyme called telomerase. The enzyme helps maintain telomeres, the caplike structures that protect the ends of chromosomes. The discovery was a breakthrough -- telomerase is implicated in cancer and genetic disease -- the import of which would become clearer over time, as possible therapies emerged.

The fourth-graders seem to have gotten the gist of this, sort of.

Their cards have pop-up components, many with illustrations of chromosomes and telomeres. One congratulates her for finding a "cure for telomerase." Another says her Nobel is "so cool I can't even think about stuff!" Greider loves them all, and is keeping them in a pile near a huge vase of roses. She has gotten so many flowers that she has had to give some away.

"I wonder if guys that win the Nobel Prize -- do they send flowers to guys? I didn't think to ask Jack," she wonders, referring to Jack Szostak, a Harvard scientist who, together with Greider's mentor, Elizabeth Blackburn, did groundbreaking work in telomeres; the two shared the Nobel with Greider. She'll ask him next time she sees him. In the meantime, she has sent an e-mail to Gwendolyn's teacher that says, "I want to come in and say thank you."

It is a rare moment of convergence between her two worlds. For the most part, Greider is able to concentrate on work when at work and home when at home. She has always had an ability to focus, ever since she was a kid with dyslexia and had to learn to tune out distraction.

"I think to a degree, it was my learning to overcome obstacles early on in my life," says Greider, a dynamic, down-to-earth woman with rumpled surfer-girl hair. "That's how I deal with family and work. I focus on one thing. I have colleagues that say, 'I called home four times today to see how the kids are doing,' and it's like, really? I never call home. I mean, I try to set things up as safe as I can, and I have my cellphone on and that's it, and I don't even think about it."

You could even say dyslexia was the key to much of Greider's success, including the fact that early on, she resisted getting hung up on the fact that science, historically, often has not been conducive to female achievement. Over the years she has become very aware of the factors that discourage women, but when she was establishing her own career: "I didn't ever feel like I had been blocked by anything. That could be more a personality thing -- I was pre-selected by being somebody that just ignored barriers."

Survival of the fittest

Dyslexia arguably was responsible for the prize itself -- or at least, for the series of decisions that put Greider on the path to winning. Greider's mother, who died when she was 6, was a biologist; her father was a physicist who encouraged her to find work that engaged her. After college she decided to go to graduate school in molecular biology, but because of her disability she did not test well, and a number of schools rejected her because of poor GRE scores. Just two -- UC Berkeley and Cal Tech -- took note of her stellar grades and invited her for an interview. Accepted by both, she chose Berkeley in part because one of her interviewers was Blackburn.

Greider can't say for sure that she gravitated to Blackburn because they are the same gender; it was more that Blackburn was doing intriguing work and spoke about it with infectious passion. But she does think female scientists have a slight affinity for working in the labs of women, and that this accounts in part for the number of women in her own field. Greider calls this a "founder effect," an evolutionary term for the fact that traits exhibited by the founders of a population tend to show up in later generations. Because of a male scientist who was unusually encouraging, the field of telomere biology was seeded early on with women, who then attracted more.

That theory also helps explain why more women aren't at the top in many other areas of science. Because usually the founders were men, who in turn attracted men.


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