Women Scientists Win Nobel Prize in Medicine

By Liza Doubossarskaia, NOW Communications Intern

Women can perform just as well in math and science as men. However, we often hear the opposite sentiment — that females lack the intellectual capacity necessary to pursue scientific inquiry. I enjoy seeing such unsubstantiated and blatantly erroneous theories debunked, so I warmly welcomed the recent news of Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Carol W. Greider winning the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize in Medicine. Blackburn, Greider, and their colleague, Jack W. Szostak, were recognized for their research on the telomere, a structure that protects chromosomes. The significance of their work lies in the fact that it makes a valuable contribution to the study of cancer and the search for cures.

Even prior to their big win, Blackburn and Greider led exceptional lives. Blackburn, a professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, was on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2007. Greider, a professor in the department of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is also a triathlete and has made remarkable accomplishments despite having dyslexia. In addition to their successful careers in science, both women are mothers.

Their achievement also is important because it creates a few more cracks in the glass ceiling. Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize back in 1903, and she went on to win it a second time seven years later. In turn, Blackburn and Greider are the first two women to win the award in the same category for a joint project. Still, of the more than 800 Nobel Laureates over the past century, less than five percent have been women. From the disparity in numbers, it is clear that women still have a long way to go before we can achieve full equality, but stories like that of Blackburn and Greider help to pave the path for further victories.

Blackburn and Greider effectively disprove the double-standard that women must choose between having a family or having a career, while men can do both. If men can be scientists, husbands, and fathers, then women can be scientists, wives, and mothers; although they might experience more societal pressure to limit themselves to only one of many available options. Furthermore, Blackburn and Greider have shown that women can rise to the top of the science field. If girls ever feel discouraged by the myth that men make better scientists, they only have to look at Blackburn and Greider to realize that hard work and perseverance yield results regardless of a person’s sex.

Update: Once again, history was made among the Nobel Prize winners on Oct.12, when Elinor Ostrom became the first woman to accept the highly prized award in the Economic Sciences category. Ostrom and co-winner Oliver Williamson were distinguished for their analysis of economic governance. According to The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which bestows the award, Ostrom “has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized.”

Ostrom’s win makes her the fifth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in 2009 — a record year for the recognition of women’s accomplishments. In an interview immediately after the announcement, Ostrom told Nobelprize.org: “I’ve attended economic sessions where I’ve been the only woman in the room, but that is slowly changing and I think there’s a greater respect now that women can make a major contribution. And I would hope that the recognition here is helping that along.”

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