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Profile of Nobel Prize Winner Carol Greider, a Johns Hopkins Molecular Biologist
"I really think that there are subtle societal factors" at work in science, says Greider. "It doesn't have to be that the men at the top are saying, 'Oh, no, let's not promote women. . . . ' I think that there are comfort zones, and a man going to a meeting may feel a little more comfortable introducing his [male] graduate student to his colleagues. . . . Those are the kind of mechanisms by which subtle effects can actually affect the outcome."
Her explanation for women's under-representation is at odds with the one infamously suggested by Larry Summers, former president of Harvard, who provoked an uproar in 2005 when he suggested that it might be a problem of "intrinsic aptitude," an explanation Greider finds ridiculous. Her own theory takes into account that the difficulty of scientific achievement is not just memorizing formulas and interpreting data; it's surviving in a ferociously competitive culture that depends on strategic alliances. To advance, a young scientist needs to get included on significant projects, preferably with an established mentor.
Also fortunate was that Greider's focus enabled her to overlook the scarcity of other female faculty members in her Berkeley department. Tuning that out, she manifested unusual talent in the lab, a kind of innate genius that has a lot to do with "the ability to concentrate" and "not get distracted," says Titia de Lange, who works in telomere biology and heads a lab at Rockefeller University. "People have it or don't have it. It's not something that you can teach."
Greider attached herself to a project Blackburn had going; curious why telomeres don't get shorter with cell division, Blackburn suspected there was an enzyme that helped them replicate. Greider spent nine months finding nothing, then decided to change one of the substances in her experiment. When she went in on Christmas Day 1984, to check on it, she looked at an X-ray film and saw a pattern that suggested she had discovered the enzyme Blackburn was looking for. Her mentor, Greider recalls, was "bowled over." They did a great deal of testing to make sure they hadn't misinterpreted, then published the results.
A major talent had announced itself. Applying for a postdoctoral fellowship at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, Greider, who would continue working on telomerase, was offered something better: a three-year independent fellowship designed to nurture young scientists. "She was probably the most enthusiastic about what she did as a graduate student as anybody I've ever seen," says Bruce Stillman, now the president of the lab. "She didn't even last three years; we promoted her to the faculty."
Once again, Greider tuned out distracting white noise. There were rumors that Cold Spring Harbor was not female-friendly, but this was not true for her. Yet even as she was advancing, she became aware that this was the point at which attrition often occurs, for women. "The stage at which women tend to drop out is between postdoc and assistant professor, and assistant and associate professor, by far," she says, a truth that is well established: "About 50 percent of graduate students [in many scientific fields] are women, and that's not true at the faculty level," says Stillman. Part of this, Greider believes, is that men display that slight affinity for men; part is that female scientists often lack the support systems at home needed to achieve the productivity -- findings, papers, prizes -- upon which advancement depends.
While there she was asked to head a committee to find out what colleagues wanted in a new gymnasium. After sending out a questionnaire, she told officials that what they really needed was a child-care facility. "The very fact that she was a woman faculty member and came back with that recommendation . . . is I think indicative of the need that women have in science," says Stillman.
The facility got built; Greider says there is a photo of her with a shovel at the groundbreaking, nine months pregnant. With the historian of science Nathaniel Comfort, whom she married in 1993, she had a son, Charles, whom they enrolled in the child-care center, and a daughter. She would take the baby to the office, and encourages women in her lab who are on maternity leave to bring their babies to group meetings.
Because science, argues Greider -- who now runs a lab at Johns Hopkins -- can be made to fit a parent's schedule.
"My job is to be productive. I don't have to be here from 9 to 5, there's not a clock. I will just say I'm going to watch Gwendolyn's play today, and I'll leave. I make sure I say why I'm going. . . . I think it's important for people to know that this is okay, [to] send that signal." Not surprisingly, more women than men apply to work in Greider's lab.
A crowded field
Founder effect or not, it would be a mistake to think the field of telomere biology consists of a bunch of women nurturing each other. Fellow scientists say Greider is as tough-minded as anybody. Her reputation is that of a "brilliant, hard-working and highly competitive scientist," says David Keefe, a doctor and scientist who has done work on telomeres and female reproductive aging.
Greider says she does not think of herself as competitive, but that competing is hard to avoid. Early on, she says: "I never really felt like I had to compete. We just started off and were just looking at something that was interesting. And there wasn't anyone else doing it. We could publish it and have the luxury to do the right controls and take our time.
"Now there are many more people in the field," and so intense is the pressure to be first that if a project is "something that you really think is going to be hot, you don't say anything about it."
Over the years, Greider has amassed a number of prizes; several years ago she, Blackburn and Szostak were given the Albert Lasker Award for basic medical research, sometimes a precursor to the Nobel. And just as the world of home sometimes intrudes on the world of work, the opposite can also be true.
That was the case two weeks ago, when Greider was up, as usual, before 5. With time to spare before going to spin class, she was folding laundry and thinking about the mouse she could see nibbling food they had left out for her daughter's escaped hamster. Just as she was thinking she would have to get a live trap, the call came. After that, "I got to send an e-mail and write a sentence that I know has never been written before by a man: Can't make it to spin class. I just won the Nobel Prize."
Several days later, when she heard that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize, she thought to herself: "I bet he wasn't folding laundry."