Luca Nicola 15 December 2020 15 min read

Carol, the youngest woman to win the Noble Prize in Medicine

Carol, the youngest woman to win the Noble Prize in Medicine

Carol W. Greider won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine, along with Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak, for her research on cellular ageing and in particular on how chromosomes are protected by telomeres, our biological clocks.

Carol also discovered telomerase, an enzyme that has major implications for medical research on the ageing process and growth of cancer cells.


Carol’s story

I believe that learning to develop my compensatory skills also played a role in my success as a scientist. Perhaps my ability to pull more information out of context and to put together different ideas may have been affected by what I learned to do from dyslexia.

[Carol W. Greider]

Carol was born in San Diego (USA) in 1961. Both her parents were scientific researchers and worked at the University of California, Berkeley.

Carol did not have an easy childhood: she lost her mother when she was just six years old. In addition, she had a hard time at school, because she mispronounced words and had difficulty spelling. In the beginning, this made her feel dismayed and deeply inadequate, but she then discovered that she was dyslexic. She accepted this aspect of her character and, with time, turned it into one of her strengths.

After high school, Carol decided to study marine biology. Once she graduated, she met Elizabeth Blackburn at Berkeley and started to work in her laboratory. At that time, Elizabeth had already described the molecular structure of telomeres and was investigating how their process of shortening and lengthening worked.

Carol decided to look for a hypothetical enzyme that re-lengthened shortened telomeres. After around nine months of attempts and experiments, she identified it on Christmas Day, 1984. Carol and Elizabeth called it teromerase and published their findings in the scientific journal “Cell”. At the age of 23, before she had even got her PhD, Carol made the discovery that was to result in her winning the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

In a joint interview, given several years after the discovery of telomerase, the two researchers recalled the special symphony that had been created between them:

It was like solving a kind of puzzle. We wanted to understand how telomeres worked and we did experiment after experiment. And we didn’t always agree. One experiment we talked for a long time and neither of us would give up our stance. Then the next morning she decided to do as I said, and I as she said. We both laughed.

[Carol W. Greider and Elizabeth H. Blackburn]

Carol then met the scientific writer, Nathaniel Comfort, who she married in 1992. In 1997 the couple moved to Baltimore, when Johns Hopkins University hired Carol as an associate professor. Carol still works there today, as director of Molecular Biology and Genetics.


Her personality

Carol is very creative and very determined. She loves and is enthusiastic about being in the laboratory, which brings her great joy. She is truly grateful to many scientists that she has met throughout her career and all the students, postdocs and technicians who brought their energy and great ideas to the lab when working with her.

Being a mother is very important to Carol, and she is particularly sensitive to the subject of public policies that support mothers:

Two years after I moved to Johns Hopkins, my daughter Gwendolyn was born. Having two kids and a full-time job in the lab is a challenge, but having Charles and Gwendolyn is the best thing that has ever happened to me. My lab knows that I am a mom first, and the flexibility that academic science provides makes having a career and a family possible. I can go home when needed, or to a school play in the middle of the day, then come back and finish my work-day; or work from home on the computer. The main thing is to find the time to get things done, it is not the hours at work but the overall productivity that counts. Having flexibility takes a huge amount of pressure off.

[Carol W. Greider]

Despite being awarded the Nobel Prize, Carol is still concerned with the “under-representation of the 50% of the brain power of this world.” This is why she continues to support women, who want to have a career that they love and a family, encouraging them to find a way to combine both their passions.


La sua ricerca

Science is not done alone: it is through talking with others and sharing that progress is made.

[Carol W. Greider]

Carol discovered telomerase, an enzyme that is a small machine inside the cell that keeps the end of chromosomes – the telomeres – intact, by playing a fundamental role in determining the lifespan of cells. Because of this characteristic, telomeres are considered to be a kind of biological clock.

The medical significance of this initial discovery has been confirmed over time: today telomeres and telomerase are the focus of studies dealing with ageing and tumors.

Carol’s work continues to concentrate on understanding telomerase and the consequences of telomere dysfunction.

And she continues tirelessly with her research, with her usual enthusiasm and rigor:

I learned to step aside from myself and view my data through the eyes of a sceptic. I learned that getting the correct answer is more important than getting an answer you might hope for.

[Carol W. Greider]


Discover the other stories of the women who changed the history of medicine


nina-chhita_portraitNina Chhita is the artist and illustrator of the Instagram account @nina.draws.scientists, which focuses on contemporary and historical trailblazing scientists, who happen to be women. She initially started the account as a way to discover historical figures, and as a scientist herself, naturally gravitated towards scientists. Articles have since been written about Nina in the BBC news and Mental Floss. Her illustrations have appeared on the social media sites of the University of Oxford, the University of Bath, Dementias Platform UK, and in a YouTube video by Vanessa Hill. She lives in Vancouver where she works as a medical writer creating educational content for healthcare professionals.


Luca Nicola

Copywriter since 1988, he began his career in De Agostini, and then chose to continue as a freelancer. Graduated in Philosophy, he is currently also a professor of Web Marketing at the Federlegno Training Center. As a communication consultant, he has been working for many clients for many years, including some large international groups. In 2012 he opened the personal blog “Mela N” where he deals with topics related to Writing, Communication, Content Marketing and Storytelling.