The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Dr Elizabeth Blackburn Becomes Australia’s First Female Nobel Prize Winner

Posted by Clem Bastow on October 6, 2009

Hearty congratulations are in order for Dr Elizabeth Blackburn, who last night was announced – along with her colleagues Jack Szostak and Carol Greider – as the winner of the Nobel prize for medicine. The San Francisco-based Blackburn’s work concerns the study of telomeres, cellular “caps” that protect chromosomes; ”You can think of a chromosome as a shoelace with a telomere as the aglet,” she explained, “the tag or sheath at the end of a shoelace that prevents the end from fraying.”

Here’s some background info from The Age‘s coverage:

Australia’s 11th Nobel laureate, Dr Blackburn is a vocal advocate of independent scientific thought, and fell out with the Bush administration over cloning and stem cells. She was dropped from the president’s Council on Bioethics in 2004 after questioning its bias.

A colleague and friend, Melbourne University dean of science Rob Saint, said Dr Blackburn chose her career at a time when women were starting to become much more involved in the sciences. ”I think she would be representative of a change in that gender balance,” Professor Saint said. ” ”She is a very down-to-earth person, intelligent and wise. She stood up for not letting politics intrude into discussions about science.”

Fellow Australian geneticist Jenny Graves said the Nobel prize would serve as great encouragement to young women. ”It’s quite inspirational to those [who] realise we’ve all struggled and persevered to do fantastic science,” said Professor Graves. ”Liz’s time was definitely coming. Her work was just becoming more important as time passed.”

Couldn’t agree more. You can read more about Dr Blackburn and watch some of her lectures over at the University of California San Francisco’s Blackburn Lab Research page.

I think, however, I do need to briefly mention The Age‘s choice of headline:

Picture 25

The headline is contextualised in the article’s introduction:

EARLY in her tertiary education Elizabeth Blackburn was asked by a family friend: ”What’s a nice girl like you doing studying science?”

Unfortunately, choosing to riff on it via the headline misses the point (i.e. that Dr Blackburn has triumphed over such outmoded, sexist and infantilising statements) and instead perpetuates such inanities – girls can’t study science; when are you going to get married and quit work; yes, but you’re not a real scientist, girlie – for the sake of a tittersome headline. So, “thanks”, The Age, for continuing a century or so of sexist rhetoric.


8 Responses to “Dr Elizabeth Blackburn Becomes Australia’s First Female Nobel Prize Winner”

  1. elaine said

    don’t forget the parting message about her real contribution to the world:

    Dr Blackburn is married to biochemist John Sedat, and they have a son, Benjamin.


    They sure wouldn’t mention the marital/breeding status of a male laureate.

    Grrrr. I am SO riled up over this.

    • True – just because she’s Dr Blackburn, and thus has escaped having her marital status on display in her very name, doesn’t mean it needs to be mentioned in the article. On the other hand, with modern media’s rabid need to describe instant celebrities, I imagine if the gender’s were reversed we would get a mention of him being married to a geneticist. Of course, it’s unlikely such an article would consider that relevant if she hadn’t happened to also be a scientist, and I’d be surprised if kids would be mentioned.

      Interestingly, by the way, the New York Times ran an article titled “Three Americans Share Nobel Prize for Medicine” – Blackburn has dual citizenship. Their article mentions that Jack Szostak has kids, but only because he apparently joked he’d use the prize money to send them to college.

  2. […] I have a follow-up post coming about that enigmatic Lebbeus shrimp, but today here’s a quick shout out for Dr Elizabeth Blackburn, the first Australian woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize. (While the article’s title paraphrases one of Dr Blackburn’s anecdotes, I can’t help but cringe at “What’s a nice girl like you doing with a Nobel prize?” – a sentiment echoed by the excellent Clem Bastow over at The Dawn Chorus.) […]

  3. Kat said

    congratulations Ms Blackburn! A deserving front page story – pity about the headline.

  4. […] Prize. The media are making a big thing out of her being the 34th female laureate – though some haven’t done a very progressive job of it – and I agree this is significant, though I also wish (as usual) that we were at a stage in […]

  5. Damon said

    Tsk, tsk, tsk. The subeditor could’ve had so much fun. (e.g. “Putting a Nobel on the Blackburner”)

  6. Willy Holmes-Spoelder said

    As a researcher I became interested in *telomerase*, the Wikipedia provided me with the necessary information which led me to *getting to know* Dr. Elisabeth Blackburn.
    I was so impressed with the phenomenon *telomerase* and somehow *so*
    pleased that INDEED a woman is spending her lifetime in career doing such important work. WOW.
    As a woman myself with ample experience of moving around in a male-dominated world: most men still cannot digest that there are women with a splendid brain, who at the same time also are mothers and wives, charming, feminine.
    It is FEAR of course that indeed one day men have become superfluous.

    Mrs. Blackburn has the ability to explain something extremely complicated, which is more than I have seen coming from most male scientists.
    The Nobel Price for Medicine !!! Congratulations Mrs. Blackburn – I just love persons focussing on such important research. Thank you

  7. Dylan Kopetzky said

    i absolutely agree. she is great at doing her work and has discovered that. she should be very proud of herself.

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