Nobel Women

Carol Greider, Carol Grieder
Rob Carr/AP

Carol Greider, 2009 Co-Winner of Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

October 15, 2009
by Haley A. Lovett
Dr. Carol Greider didn’t let her struggle with dyslexia as a young girl stop her from earning her doctorate degree or helping to discover the enzyme telomerase, a key find in the study of cell aging and cancer research.

Carol Greider’s Early Days

Carol Greider was born in California on April 15, 1961. Both of her parents were scientists. She attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she discovered her passion for biochemistry. Greider applied to many molecular biology graduate programs but was only given two interviews because of her poor GRE scores. She had always struggled with standardized testing but didn’t realize until later in life that she was dyslexic, something she helped combat by strengthening her memorization skills.

During her graduate school interview with professor Elizabeth Blackburn at the University of California, Berkeley, Greider found that she clicked with Blackburn and decided to attend the school.

Greider’s Notable Accomplishments

On Christmas Day in 1984, while studying the tiny organism Tetrahymena with Blackburn, the two discovered the enzyme telomerase. The enzyme prevents telomeres, the ends of chromosomes that keep DNA together and regulate how cells divide, from shortening. Too little of the enzyme telomerase can mean that cells become damaged or age too quickly, while too much telomerase can help cancer cells in dividing quickly. The discovery of this enzyme may be critical in fighting cancer and preventing premature cell aging in the future.

Although the enzyme was discovered more than 20 years ago, the two scientists, along with Jack W. Szostak, were not awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine until this year.

Greider explained to New York Times reporter Claudia Dreifus that often Nobel Prizes are awarded long after a discovery, due to the time it takes for scientists to understand the importance of the discovery. “I think it’s clear now,” Greider said, "that the basic science we did is important to understanding cancers, some human genetic diseases and the age associated degenerative diseases.”

The Rest of the Story

After Greider’s work at the University of California, Berkeley, came to an end, she took a postdoctoral fellowship at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. She continued to study telomeres and found, along with colleague Calvin Harley, that shortening of telomeres had to do with cellular aging, and that active telomerase was linked to cancer cell replication.

Greider most recently took a position as an associate professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine where she is studying the link between telomerase and stem cell failure in some genetic disorders.

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