Professor Elizabeth Blackburn on Unconscious Biases

Interview by Stephanie Forkel and Henrietta Howells

Professor Elizabeth Blackburn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 with her graduate student, Carol Greider, and collaborator Jack Szostak for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase. This discovery has had tremendous implications for cancer and ageing research. Professor Blackburn is one of only 47 female Nobel Laureates thus far. She is a regular attendee at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, and is a role model to young female scientists across the world. We interviewed Prof. Blackburn on her recent visit to London for International Women’s Day.

The interview was conducted by Henrietta Howells and Stephanie Forkel. The latter got to know Professor Blackburn during the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2014.

 

Prof. Elizabeth Blackburn. Photo: C. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Prof. Elizabeth Blackburn. Photo: C. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Germany has recently passed legislation requiring large companies to allocate 30% of seats on non-executive boards to women. Similar legislation already exists in other countries. What is your opinion on gender quotas?

Prof. Blackburn: I think it is a good idea because sometimes something is needed to counteract things like unconscious biases. Once legislated then people start to pay attention. I have seen it happen in the university setting, when universities tell departments they need to have either a certain end goal of diversity or to show initially that they have put processes into play that increase diversity in their search for good employees. I think that while one could say the market could drive things up, I do not think that is actually true for a lot of social groups, and this is one. So I am very clear, I think this is a good idea. I do not know about numbers, 30-35%, it doesn’t matter, but I think it is a good idea. And if it is a terrible idea, then legislation can be passed against it! I think there is no reason not to do this.

Do you think this is the first step in a long way, or do you think this is sufficient?

Prof. Blackburn: We shall see! When you set an atmosphere and there is an expectation of 30% then it could become the new norm. It is a question of what can make the new normal, so sometimes a push to reset this is needed, which has happened in various other settings where diversity has been either required or encouraged. I am more familiar with these settings in America, and it has positive effects, so I think it is a good idea.

 

Prof. Elizabeth Blackburn having a chat with a young scientist. Photo: C. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Prof. Elizabeth Blackburn having a chat with a young scientist. Photo: C. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

47 women (8%) have received the Nobel Prize out of 567 laureates. This year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting will be interdisciplinary with 70 Laureates attending, of which three are women – Ada Yonath, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and yourself. Can we talk about a Nobel ‘quota’?

Prof. Blackburn: I would not use the word ‘quota’ as I believe it rather to be an unconscious bias. The numbers have ended up being very small for women, but happily last year we saw these are increasing [May-Britt Moser was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for her work on cells constituting a positioning system in the brain].

Looking at this year, we saw that 70 Laureates are attending and of these only three are female (of 6 female Laureates in the sciences).

Prof. Blackburn: Out of six that could attend, three are attending? The shocking thing is not the percentage attending but that the denominator is so low. Six is very low; that is the shocking part. The women are doing pretty well I would say with 50% attending. For busy people this is not bad at all!

 

Prof. Elizabeth Blackburn taking part in a panel discussion at Lindau in 2014. Photo: R. Schultes/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Prof. Elizabeth Blackburn taking part in a panel discussion at Lindau in 2014. Photo: R. Schultes/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

This year the Lindau meeting will be interdisciplinary. What are your expectations?

Prof. Blackburn: With so many people attending, it is going to be a big party! I hope people get the buzz of being part of such interactive things. I attended in 2011 and 2014, which were both for Physiology or Medicine. I know this year will be extremely broad because the previous ones were more restricted in their scope, but were in fact already very broad. The main thing is that the interactions were good. So I should ask you what you got out of it because that is really important: what for you was interesting?

Stephanie Forkel: It was like being in a bubble for a week, which was amazing because one is somewhat remote…

Prof. Blackburn: Yes, that is the whole point.

Stephanie Forkel: …They keep you busy all the time, even when you have free time in-between, because you live close to the other students who are always interacting. You meet interesting people from a variety of fields – it was Medicine or Physiology when I went, but there were not too many neuroscientists, so I was drawn out of my comfort zone, and I really enjoyed it.

Prof. Blackburn: Exactly, that is right and that is what is great. I think it is really important to have events like that, it is like a scientific conference – often you are in your field but you are still in a particularly remote zone where you just focus on your work and are immersed for a week. So you enjoyed it [SF: Absolutely] .. good. And I would say conversely for me, because I get to have discussions with people who have really interesting questions put in ways that I had not really thought about. These could often be naïve questions but these were smart questions, so it was really nice.

Stephanie Forkel: It is often good as people from different disciplines within science have a different angle on your topic. If you talk to your peers you can reach a common ground.

Prof. Blackburn: Yes, you share the same assumptions.

 

Prof. Elizabeth Blackburn at the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Photo: C. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Prof. Elizabeth Blackburn at the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Photo: C. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

What draws you to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate meetings?

Prof. Blackburn: Roger Tsien, who I have great respect for and I know is a great teacher, told me the Lindau Meeting is just wonderful because you get to interact with many young scientists [Prof. Tsien was awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery and development of GFP proteins]. That was good enough for me! The other reason for attending is very much related to your point on ‘tokenism’ – we are visual creatures, if you see something you think it is possible. If you see a female Nobel Laureate, you think it is not impossible. Because the majority are very much of a single demographic – white, Caucasian men. When you see something different then it tells you something different. In Roger’s case, he is Asian, something that is not in the majority of Nobel Prize winners. He said it was great to interact with junior people, like you, and indeed it was, so I found it personally very rewarding. I also feel that because I am in a great minority, as a female Nobel Laureate in the sciences [there have been more in literature over the years], that I feel an obligation to show my face, which I am happy to do. We are visual! People see it and then it becomes real. That is why I will go again this year and I’ll keep going.

Authors

Stephanie Forkel

ForkelBox

Stephanie is currently a postdoctoral scientist at the Department of Neuroimaging at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London. After having trained in various European countries, she settled in London to map white matter connections in the living human brain using advanced neuroimaging methods. These methods are used to identify anatomical predictors of language (aphasia) and visuospatial (neglect) recovery after stroke.

 

Henrietta Howells

Howells

Henrietta is a member of the Natbrainlab, part of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London. Her particular research interest is white matter connectivity, particularly brain lateralisation in language and behavioural asymmetry such as handedness. For her PhD she is working using a combination of diffusion and functional MRI to investigate white matter asymmetry in fine motor skill, in left and right handed groups but also in those with alternative limb dexterity.

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