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Oration honouring Elizabeth Helen Blackburn

Elizabeth Helen Blackburn

Courage comes in many forms. We commonly understand it as physical – as the bravery of men in battle resisting other men, or as men struggling with nature and the elements. But there are gentler, less bloodied ways of displaying one’s valour. One can display an intellectual courage in having the daring to step into realms where others have not ventured– the risks are not physical but they may well prove hazardous to one’s reputation and to one’s career. Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn’s career has been built on such risks. She moved from her own area of basic research to clinical research because it opened up questions she thought worth pursuing. In doing so she moved from an area where she was completely comfortable to one with which in the past she had some reservations. But again a qualification is necessary because her risks are taken after intense research and considerable work. And this research is allied to a remarkable mind which, as her colleagues all report, allows her to look at an experiment and see it in the context of all that has gone before, to assess the possibilities and to make a sound judgement on how to proceed. She, because of a curiosity about its function, has thus moved from looking at a minute aspect of DNA, the telomere, to showing us how its properties affect our susceptibility to ageing; and to looking at telomerase, whose properties have a role in the development of cancer.

The other form of courage she has demonstrated is a moral courage. When, very soon after 9/11, she was asked to serve on President Bush’s Council on Bioethics she, despite being very busy, took on the task because she felt an obligation to her adopted country and to science. The unspoken role of the council was to prevent embryonic stem cell research but Elizabeth Blackburn felt she and her fellow scientists could bring a reasoned perspective to the deliberations. She soon discovered that her views were not being represented properly in the council’s reports and that evidence was being distorted. Yet she held her ground and attempted to present the scientific facts to the council and to the public. In 2004 her appointment was not renewed and none of the persons in those who replaced her were scientists – all represented the Bush viewpoint on the issue. So she spoke up, spoke out. In the climate of the time in which academics were being monitored by right-wing agencies for their political views, this could have been very dangerous. However, her position was broadly supported by scientists and the media. The Union of Concerned Scientists, who had previously taken a stand against the Bush administration for treating science as a tool of politics, reissued their statement citing Blackburn’s dismissal as evidence, and the number of signatories rose from sixty to four thousand. And she was obliged to become a media figure.

This is all encapsulated in a person who, for all her distinctions, is really quite self-effacing. Having chosen science (which we all know is a man’s world) as a career, she adopted a cryptic coloration that allowed her to work “genderlessly” in this world. While running her department at the University of California at San Francisco she, unlike male administrators, took what was often the worst office but ensured that her colleagues – male and female alike – were provided with good accommodation. She is seen by all who have worked with her as not just a team player (the masculinity of that term is noted) but, more importantly, as a team builder. She has become the model mentor, guiding her graduate students through their own programs, fostering their research, supporting their career development. And it is very significant that Carol Greider, who shares the Nobel with Blackburn, was Blackburn’s student as are so many women who have achieved distinction in the immensely important field of cell biology. Never one to serve herself, always concerned to serve science and the wider community on which it depends, she has been at the forefront of efforts to provide open access to scientific research which, too often, is shuttered behind the covers of very costly journals. But, Chancellor, before we settle on giving this degree you should know that her awards are so numerous, that she has enough medals to embarrass even a general and that they are not respectfully mounted on the wall but kept quietly in a closet.

This modest maid from Melbourne who is a Fellow of the Royal Society and holds the Lasker and Franklin awards, now brings to us and to our Convocation the great lustre of her Nobel Prize in Medicine. Chancellor, I present to you for another closetable award, for the degree of Doctor of Science (honoris causa), a scientist without peer who combines imagination with persistence, integrity with courage, brilliance with modesty, ELIZABETH HELEN BLACKBURN.

Shane O’Dea
Public orator