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Girl Power – to the Nobels, and beyond!

PowderPuffGirls by calsidyrose.JPGOur office has a specific 'crisis plan' to deal with the annual announcements of the Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine (one category), and in Chemistry. Most notably, it includes a fair degree of annual jockeying to see which of us will 'volunteer' to get up at 2:30 am to check the Nobel Web site for Stanford winners.

I can't say I'm really disappointed that our medical school came away empty-handed this year. Although the mad scramble three years ago, when we won in both categories, will be forever etched in my memory as one of the most exciting (and stressful) events in my working life, I was more than happy to roll over and go back to sleep in the wee hours of both Monday and Wednesday. But not before I gave a silent cheer at the news that two women--Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, and Carol Greider, PhD-- won in physiology or medicine and one--Ada Yonath, PhD--in chemistry.

As a former (some might say reformed) graduate student at Stanford, I saw firsthand some of the difficulties that women in academic science can experience. Without rehashing them here, the field as a whole has been dominated by men for over a century. That's why this week has been so remarkable.

These women weren't the sole winners in their categories: Blackburn and Greider shared their award, which was given for their work in understanding the telomerase enzyme, with Jack Szostak; and Yonath with Thomas Steitz, PhD, and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, PhD, for mapping the function of the ribosome. But Blackburn and Greider's win marks the first time two women have shared a Nobel, and, prior to this week, only 35 women had ever won a Nobel Prize. What's more, it was announced yesterday morning that the Nobel Prize in Literature had been awarded to yet another woman, Herta Müller. That's four women in four days! If only a woman had also snagged today's Peace Prize...

I'm joking a little here, but the subject of women in science is really important to me. I've been glad to see institutions like Stanford and others work to rectify the imbalance by ensuring true equality in the workplace, whether it be through examining laboratory square footage, comparing pay scales or ensuring a better work-life balance. And while there's still miles to go in terms of promoting and retaining women to top level science, this week makes me feel hopeful.

In the New York Times article announcing the medicine win, Greider attributes the relative prevalence of women in her specialty--the study of telomerase and its effects in the cell--to what she calls a 'founder effect'. Joseph Gall, then at Yale University, trained Blackburn and other women scientists, she says, who in turn trained additional women in the study of the enzyme. If that's true, successful role models like Blackburn, Greider and Yonath can only help.

Asked what she thought of being the ninth women to win the prize in physiology, Blackburn said: "Very excited, and hoping that nine will quickly become a larger number." Me too.

(Ok, I really can't end this entry without also pointing out that, in the midst of the Nobel Prize excitement, Hilary Mantel's novel, Wolf Hall, was awarded the 2009 Man Booker Prize for fiction on Tuesday. The story is about Henry VIII's minister Thomas Cromwell, and I can't wait to read it. I'm a big fan of stories about Henry VIII, who, despite his many faults, can't possibly be dinged for not having enough women around!)

Photo by calsidyrose

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