Female scientist blazes her own path

From the notes on the page to the mind of a genius, Elizabeth Blackburn says many things inspired her to pursue a life in science.

"I loved animals," she says. "And I got very interested in the whole question of science, and how living cells are made up."

Inside cells she found a protein called telomerase that determines the life span of cells. It is nothing less than crucial to aging, stress, cancer and many other diseases.

Is her research going to allow people to live forever?

"My research won't allow people to live forever," says Blackburn. "If you could live out that life in a healthy way, that to me would be much more what my research is about."

Blackburn grew up in Tasmania, Australia. Both of her parents were physicians. But her role models did not entirely prepare her for the obstacles facing a woman in science, especially in the 1970s when almost no senior scientists were women and seven out of eight graduate students were men.

"I just kind of kept doing the science," says Blackburn.

Her big lab at the University of California, San Francisco, happens to be 50-50, male-female.

"[We have] what people say is a lot of women," says Blackburn, "and I say, look, it's not a lot of women. It's the biological ratio."

It has worked out so well that Friday she received the Lasker Award, sharing with two others the highest recognition in American science.

"It does show that women can succeed in science," says Blackburn. "And more and more I've felt that that's an important message to be sending to younger scientists as they come into research."

Many believe Blackburn could also win the Nobel Prize for Medicine on Oct. 2.