An Interview with Salk Institute President Elizabeth Blackburn

Elizabeth Blackburn

When Jonas Salk announced the discovery of the polio vaccine in 1955, Elizabeth Blackburn was six years old and busy collecting tadpoles and ants a world away in her native Tasmania. She couldn’t have known it then, but science, discovery and Jonas Salk would all play important roles in her future.

After his vaccine discovery, Salk went on to found the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Blackburn went on to a distinguished career as a pioneering molecular biologist whose research would eventually earn her a Nobel Prize.

This January, Blackburn began serving as the new president of the Salk Institute, taking the helm of Jonas Salk’s world-renowned scientific enterprise and leading an elite cadre of scientists as they push the frontiers of discovery in fields such as cancer, neuroscience, aging and plant biology.

“Few scientists garner the kind of admiration and respect that Dr. Blackburn receives from her peers for her scientific accomplishments and her leadership, service and integrity,” says Irwin M. Jacobs, chairman of Salk’s Board of Trustees. “Her deep insight as a scientist, her vision as a leader and her warm personality will prove invaluable as she guides the Salk Institute on its continuing journey of discovery.”

Inside Salk magazine sat down for a conversation with Blackburn as she settled into her new office overlooking the coast of La Jolla.

Did you ever consider a career outside of science?

When I was a teenager, I had classic music lessons all through school. I really loved music and I played competently. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it really be great to be someone whose life is really all about music?’ But another part of me was very realistic. Being competent at piano playing is a far cry from being a real performer and to love music isn’t to mean you can make a career out of it.

So I had the wistful dream of being a musician. But I also knew I loved science, even as a teenager. For over 50 years — most of my life! — I have been front and center a laboratory scientist. Science, to me, was the best thing that I could do. I do still noodle on the piano, mostly just for my own relaxation. We have a piano in our house in San Francisco, and my husband and son would make themselves scarce when I’d play. The only one who would put up with it was our parakeet, that had no means of escape and would chirp away merrily along with various sonatas and other piano pieces I play.

Any other enduring passions besides science
and music?

For years, I read every spy book and mystery book I could. More recently I’ve become fascinated by 20th century history, especially the earlier part of that century, when the world went through such major events and transitions. Now I’m really enjoying biographies, because people are so interesting. I’ve recently been reading a fascinating book called “Jonas Salk: A Life” by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs. He was really an extraordinary person. The house we are renting here in La Jolla just happens to be next to his house, which is intriguing.

When I was young, I read a biography on Marie Curie and that moved me very much, because I loved how she took on science. She had two kids whom she home schooled in physics. I loved the picture of this person who was so dedicated to science but was also a devoted mother. Her daughter who wrote the biography clearly adored her. That book really captivated my imagination about being a scientist.

Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA, USA
Because it’s Salk! It’s such a special place. Your heart does a little leap every time you first step into the courtyard.

What made you decide to accept the position as president of Salk?

Because it’s Salk! It’s such a special place. Your heart does a little leap every time you first step into the courtyard. The architecture is so extraordinary; it makes you wonder what it does for creativity. There has to be some amazing synergism that neuroscientists will have to figure out. There’s always been that special feeling about the place, and the science is really something special as well. So, when the possibility of becoming president came along, I got really excited. But then I told myself it would pass — but of course it didn’t. [Laughs] I really kept thinking about it, the next day and the next day, and I began to think, this could be real. A big part of my excitement was knowing the Institute as a non-resident fellow and having such an admiration for the scientists and their science that happens here and the ways it happens.

Will you miss running a lab and being engaged in your own research?

We have chapters in our lives. Even my scientific career went through many chapters. At different stages you could have called me a biochemist, a molecular biologist, a geneticist, a parasitologist, an RNA biologist, an enzymologist, somebody who works in cell biology, cancer and aging, and then a collaborator in clinical and human studies. All of those phases were different but always in some way focused on scientifically thinking about a central question: ‘How do these ends of chromosomes work?’ Which became: ‘How does it relate to human lives?’ I’ve really had my fun in the lab. Now the question is how to foster other people’s scientific careers. I’ve mentored graduate students and postdocs all throughout my career, but always as part of my own research program. As president of Salk, I now have the opportunity and the responsibility to pursue that mission at a larger scale and especially to grow younger people’s careers and success in science.

Elizabeth Blackburn with Postdoctoral Researchers Laura Hale, Uri Magaram and Lourdes Tames

Do people have misconceptions about science?

There is a visual stereotype of the lone scientist wearing a white coat — and the coat hangs very straight indeed. It somehow suggests that the work is rigid, boring and solitary. In fact, science is probably one of the most social things on the planet. It’s all about ideas going viral among science communities. Scientists think deeply much of the time but if they don’t communicate what they did, in one sense it didn’t happen. If you’re doing a biological experiment and you don’t write down what you did in a notebook or publish it in a paper, that experiment never existed, right? If it never makes it out of your mind, it doesn’t advance science. So it’s an incredibly social and communal kind of enterprise. Science also has this interesting dynamic of balancing rigor with creativity. It’s a lot like art. You look at Picasso, and you think he’s creating very free-form simple-seeming works. But Picasso was taught early on how to draw in the most classic styles and he mastered those completely. His more creative work could launch from this rigorous training. The scientist’s lab coat is an emblem of the rigorous platform that launches the real creativity in science.

The biological sciences have moved so rapidly in the past 60 years. What’s left to learn?

I wonder in biology if we aren’t where physics was in the 19th century. We know so much about the molecules, cells and cellular signaling and other fundamentals about how things work at one level, and yet, at another level we don’t know a lot. We’re very mystified by the complexity of the whole organism. We look at all of the elements and say, ‘Gosh, how did this actually turn into a human who is functional for 70, 80, 90 or even 100 years?’ There was great confidence in 19th century physics, and a feeling that they had a handle on how things worked, but there were universes they hadn’t even dreamed of. We’re at this stage of justifiable pride in all we know about biology, and yet, we know it’s still very tough. In a hundred years, scientists may look back and say ‘They knew a lot of great rigorous biology, but boy, they were so naïve.’ We’ve already had a few surprises. For instance, how important RNA molecules are in many of the functions we thought proteins dominated. There are probably other worlds in biological systems that we’ve never imagined.

How is technology changing biological sciences?

Technology is letting us do remarkable things like study single cells and single molecules, and suddenly people are framing questions in ways that they never could before. There was no point in asking those questions in the past because there was no way to experimentally verify anything. Technologies are now revealing things that you couldn’t see before, and suddenly you can visualize what’s actually going on. This is opening up new understandings of biology — and therefore of disease. We can now ask questions about our biological complexity, about what makes things work so well, much better than would be expected. The more we understand these systems the better we will understand the diseases that disrupt them.

As president of Salk, what are your aspirations for your time at the Institute?

We can start with one very clear mission: to have great science thrive at Salk. So what does that mean? We’ll need funding, of course, that’s always critical, but money isn’t enough. You can have all the money in the world, but if you don’t have the right kind of environment that inspires people to do great science there’s no point. You have to always be asking what makes a scientific community greater than the sum of its parts. At Salk, everybody is committed to this idea that doing science — great science — is not only the most exciting thing they do but also that this is what will make a lasting impact on human wellbeing. The important thing is making sure that we have a community of people devoted and enabled to do that. It’s also important that people who train at Salk leave the Institute with not only the skill set to do rigorous, creative science, but with a passion to do really great science.

Elizabeth Blackburn shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for discovering the molecular nature of telomeres and for co-discovering telomerase, an enzyme that maintains telomere ends. The huge amount of the genetic material in the form of DNA in the cells of living organisms is physically compacted into miniscule bundles called chromosomes. Telomeres protect DNA by capping the ends of chromosomes and may act as sensors of aging as they shorten, marking a cell’s age and possibly changing its genetic programming over time. Telomeres have recently emerged as a unifying regulator and readout of human aging and may well be a major coordinator and link between various age-associated diseases.

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