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Celebrating Women: Elizabeth H. Blackburn

The Nobel laureate settles in as president of the world-renowned Salk Institute


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Photo by Jennifer Siegwart

When did you come to the United States?

In 1975 I came to conduct postdoctoral research at Yale University. I met my husband, John, while I was studying at the University of Cambridge in England, so it was love and science that brought me to the United States.

What challenges have you faced in your first year?

Serving as president is a new adventure. I have always functioned within large entities. The setting at Salk is a structural difference. I wanted to do something that had a far reach, and Salk has that. It’s not about size, but about quality.

Which among your countless accomplishments are your favorite?

You mean my “favorite child?” Of course, winning the Nobel Prize—and I’ve just had a book published, The Telomere Effect, which is on the New York Times best-seller list.

What has been your greatest challenge?

You yourself present a big challenge. I thought I should never ask for help. I had to learn to ask for advice and I learned from experience.

How did you maintain balance between career and family?

My experience has been intense times for both. My husband is a professor and we have one son. We were fortunate to be able to hire help, but there were times when I had to make work a priority and other times family was priority. I learned to cut out nonessentials such as movies and going out to dinners, and I had to think of how to use my time really well. It was really just focusing.

What do you do for yourself?

When I was 15 I learned I hated frittering my time away—I liked putting effort into things. I do spend some time reading lousy mystery stories. For exercise, I walk to and from work, which is a good investment of my time.

You yourself present a big challenge. I thought I should never ask for help. I had to learn to ask for advice.

Tell us about your mentors.

I’ve had different mentors at various stages. The chair of my department at Berkeley was very supportive. The professor at my research lab at Yale was a very good adviser. My husband is a good mentor. One must have self confidence. I believe women undervalue themselves. When mentoring others, I draw on my experiences and things I wish I had done better.

What advice would you give to others?

Persist; find people who you feel will support you. You must also beware of people who try to tell you that you can’t do things.

How do you see the future?

We’re doing really exciting work at Salk. Whatever I do is an adventure. I like being here because it’s worthwhile. It’s always good to have a purpose in life.

What would you like for people to know about you?

I’m trying to get at the heart of how life really works. Salk is filled with people who have done that. In the end it’s all about people.

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