We’re down to the final stretch of women who have won Nobel Prizes in science. These five women are the most recent Laureates in Physiology or Medicine and have made astounding contributions to our knowledge of embryonic development, our sense of smell, HIV, and chromosome replication.
Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (born 1942), Eric F. Wieschaus, and Edward B. Lewis won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries of how genes affect embryo development. Nüsslein-Volhard was born in Germany during World War II, and became interested in science at a very young age. She enrolled in Frankfurt University to study biology, but quickly became bored and transferred to the new biochemistry program at Eberhard-Karls-Universität in Tübingen. After receiving her Ph.D. in Biology (specializing in Genetics) from the University of Tübingen, she and Wieschaus met and started to research mutant lines of Drosophila (fruit flies). By chemically inducing different genetic mutations and studying their effects on embryonic development, they were able to determine that genes switch on in a particular order and affect specific stages of development. It was later discovered that these Drosophila genes have homologues in other species, including vertebrates. Today, Nüsslein-Volhard is the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen. She has also started a foundation to assist female scientists in Germany by helping them with childcare.
Linda B. Buck (born 1947) and Richard Axel won the 2004 Nobel Prize for their discoveries relating to how our olfactory system works. Buck’s parents encouraged her to make an impact with her life. After her desire to help people initially led to her majoring in psychology at the University of Washington, she took some time to determine what she truly wanted to do with her life and returned to school to study microbiology. She went on in 1980 to earn her Ph.D. in Immunology from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where she became interested in how our biology functions on a molecular level. During the course of her post-doctoral work at Columbia University, she was mentored by Richard Axel and learned microbiology while studying neurons. She then became fascinated with the olfactory system. At the time, no one knew exactly how we can detect and differentiate between thousands of different odorous chemicals. Buck and Axel discovered that mammals have approximately one thousand different kinds of olfactory receptor neurons, each one of which detects a single odor-producing molecule. They also figured out how these neurons transmit scent information to the brain. Today, she is an Affiliate Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Washington, Seattle.
In 2008, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was split between Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (born 1947) and Luc Montagnier for their discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and Harald zur Hausen for his discovery that human papilloma viruses (HPV) can cause cervical cancer. Barré-Sinoussi always excelled in science, and when she was accepted to the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Paris, she chose to study biomedical sciences rather than medicine since it was a shorter and, therefore, less expensive degree program. She became interested in a career in research, and volunteered at a lab studying how retroviruses can cause cancer in mice. This led to her Ph.D. study on a synthetic molecule that could slow the progress of leukemia caused by the Friend virus in mice. During her post-doc research, she furthered her study of retroviruses, and when, in 1982, Luc Montagnier learned of a new epidemic among gay men, he contacted her to see if they could determine the cause. They biopsied the lymph node of an affected patient and were able to detect what they called lymphadenopathy associated virus (LAV), later renamed HIV. Barré-Sinoussi is still deeply involved in HIV research, both at the Institut Pasteur and as the incoming president of the International AIDS Society.
Elizabeth H. Blackburn (born 1948), Carol W. Greider (see below), and Jack W. Szostak shared the 2009 Nobel Prize for their joint discovery of an enzyme called telomerase that helps telomeres protect chromosomes. Blackburn was born in Tasmania and her childhood fascination with plants and animals led her to study biochemistry at the University of Melbourne, where she received an Honours degree. She quickly completed her master’s degree there, and then, via contacts made in the course of her research, was able to pursue a Ph.D. at Cambridge. Her thesis consisted of sequencing the DNA of a tiny bacteriophage. DNA sequencing was still in its early days and her work earned her a post-doc fellowship which she used to continue her lab research at Yale University. She studied the terminal DNA structures of a protozoa called Tetrahymena; which would eventually lead to better understanding of how telomeres protect chromosomes during cell division and the discovery of telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes them. Without them, chromosomes would fuse abnormally during cell division, leading to certain cancers or premature cell death. She later was a professor at University of California at Berkeley, where her future co-Laureate Carol W. Greider was a grad student in her lab. Blackburn was appointed to the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2001, but was controversially removed in 2004 by the Bush administration for her vocal support of embryonic stem cell research. She currently teaches at the University of California at San Francisco and is the president-elect of the American Association for Cancer Research.
Carol W. Greider (born 1961) was the daughter of two accomplished scientists. She struggled in her early school years due to undiagnosed dyslexia, but she loved the challenge of learning and by high school was an A student. She attended the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she initially studied marine ecology under the tutelage of a friend of her late mother. However, she quickly lost interest in that research and switched to a lab studying protein molecules, a field which suited her much better. During her junior year abroad at the University of Göttingen in Germany, she inadvertently joined a graduate-level lab lecture on chromosomes and studied an unusual form of DNA called Z-DNA in which the double-helix spirals the opposite way than usual. This introduction to chromosomes was what led her to pursue her graduate degree at UC Berkeley; she met Elizabeth Blackburn during her interview and was fascinated by her study of telomeres. She eventually was able to join Blackburn’s lab and assist in her research on Tetrahymena. Her lab work led to the discovery of telomerase, and after she received her Ph.D. in molecular biology in 1987, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was so impressed with her findings that they granted her an Individual Fellowship to continue her research. She quickly figured out how telomeres copy RNA and cloned telomerase. Today, Greider is the Director of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the Johns Hopkins Institute of Basic Biomedical Sciences.
This post originally appeared on Persephone Magazine on November 9, 2011.