Elizabeth Blackburn was born in Hobart in 1948 to parents who were both family physicians. Her family moved to Melbourne when she was sixteen where she attended University High School, gaining very high marks in the end-of-year exams.
Elizabeth went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in 1970 and Master of Science in 1972, both from the University of Melbourne in the field of biochemistry.
She went on to receive her PhD from the University of Cambridge. It was here, at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge that Elizabeth met her husband John Sedat. John had just taken a position at Yale, so she decided to finish her postdoctoral there.
In 1984, Elizabeth co-discovered telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes the telomere (a structure at the end of chromosomes that protects the chromosome).
1985 saw “the most memorable week of her life” when she received her full professorship at UCSF and discovered in the same week that she was about to become a mother. Her son Benjamin was born in 1986.
In 2007, she was listed among Time Magazine’s TIME 100—The People Who Shape Our World.
She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with assistant Carol Greider and Jack W. Szostak in 2009. The substantial research on the effects of chromosomal protection from telomerase, and the impact this has on cellular division has been a revolutionary catalyst in the field of molecular biology.
In recent years she and her colleagues have been investigating the effect of stress on telomerase and telomeres with particular emphasis on mindfulness meditation. Studies suggest that chronic psychological stress may accelerate ageing at the cellular level. Intimate partner violence was found to shorten telomere length.
Currently Elizabeth researches telomeres and telomerase in many organisms at the University of California San Francisco. The lab is focused on telomere maintenance, and how this has an impact on cellular ageing.
“In my lab, we’re finding that psychological stress actually ages cells, which can be seen when you measure the wearing down of the tips of the chromosomes, those telomeres.”