March 2011

ASBMB roundtable: Carol Greider

Nobel laureate Carol Greider talks about life after receiving the Nobel prize.


Carol Greider, the Daniel Nathans Professor of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University, has no shortage of work on her desk. Along with all her normal laboratory, teaching and departmental duties, Greider is hard at work finishing up four separate research papers while thinking ahead to her next round of grant submissions. It’s a hectic schedule that one might think would induce stress, but for Greider it’s actually a welcome relief.

“What this means,” she says in reference to the clutter of papers around her, “is that my life is slowly settling back to normal.”

It was a little over a year ago when Greider’s routine normalcy experienced a major shake-up with the news that she had won a share of the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine for her work in discovering the enzyme telomerase. It was not an entirely unforeseen event (Greider also had received a Lasker award in 2006, a good barometer for future Nobel success), but it still did not prepare Greider for all the pageantry that was to follow.

While most of us may be familiar with the media blitz that coincides with the yearly Nobel award announcements, that first week was just the start of a whirlwind series of months for Greider, which included trips to Sweden and the White House and more interview and public speaking requests than one could shake a day planner at.

Although life may never quite be the same as it was pre-Nobel, the start of 2011 at least has proven to be relatively quiet, allowing Greider to focus more on her passion: good basic science. And with that little extra downtime, Greider had the opportunity to sit down with the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and explain what the laureate life is like, one year later.

ASBMB: Your schedule was undoubtedly hectic following the initial award announcement; was there a specific moment during that whole event when the fact you had just won science’s most prestigious honor actually sank in?
Greider: Oh, I think that moment is still coming up; I still can’t quite believe it.

Greider received the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine for her work in discovering the enzyme telomerase.

ASBMB: At the same time, though, part of you must have known it could happen someday, given some of the other recent accolades you have been collecting, like the Lasker award and your induction into the National Academy of Sciences.
Greider: True, the award wasn’t a complete and total surprise, but at the same time I think it’s important to note that I didn’t get into scientific research for the prizes. I gave a lecture recently, and one of the questions I heard was, “Now that you’ve achieved the highest goal in science, what’s next?” And my answer was that wasn’t my ultimate goal. What I want to do is help fully elucidate the biological role of telomerase, and we still have a ways to go.

ASBMB: And what specific areas are the target of telomerase research today, whether projects in your lab or elsewhere?
Greider: Well, the great thing about telomerase is that there are surprises in store at every level, from the molecular details to studies of human disease. Biochemically, a big puzzle is understanding how telomerase specifically elongates the shortest telomere, and we’re making some inroads into that. On a broader level, we’re just beginning to appreciate the degree to which telomerase mutations are associated with many different human diseases.

ASBMB: What was the most difficult aspect of being a Nobel winner? Was there ever a point during the whole process where you may have thought, “Maybe I would have been better off if I didn’t win?”
Greider: Well, besides having to write my own autobiography, the hardest part might have been keeping track of all the requests for interviews or speaking engagements I received shortly after getting the award. At the peak I think I was averaging almost 100 requests a week, and I definitely needed help in managing my phone calls and e-mails. It’s always been a positive experience though; the only negative aspect has been turning down invitations because of lack of time.

ASBMB: And among the numerous media requests you received, was there any particular one you remember for being unusual or unexpected.
Greider: Well, in some of my first interviews I had mentioned that I have dyslexia and how I coped with it growing up, and soon afterward I got contacted by several dyslexia associations and ended up doing many interviews and video shoots for them, becoming sort of a spokesperson. And that was unexpected because I had no idea the dyslexia community was so organized and active, but I’m glad I had a chance to work with them, because it was a learning experience for me as well.

ASBMB: And speaking of experiences, how was your trip to Stockholm to receive your award?
Greider: That was a wonderful experience, though quite busy as well, and I’m grateful that the Nobel committee provided an attaché to help manage my schedule for the days I was there; I also made sure to ask [2003 Hopkins laureate] Peter Agre and his wife what to prepare for. It was especially memorable because I had the opportunity to invite friends and family from around the world to share in the ceremonies with me.

ASBMB: Are there any particular moments from that trip that stand out for you?
Greider: I don’t think there was anything really newsworthy, though one interesting moment occurred right on the day of the awards banquet; I decided to go ice skating with my two kids, and everyone around me was getting all nervous, and saying, “What are you going to do if you fall and break your leg?”

ASBMB: And you also had an opportunity to meet President Obama, a fellow 2009 Nobel laureate?
Greider: That’s right, though the Peace prize is given out in Oslo so Obama was not at the Stockholm ceremony. However, the White House did have a Nobel reception before the awards, and I got to attend with my kids, and we all got our pictures taken in the Oval Office, so we had a great time.

ASBMB: On that note, I guess a good, and important, question to finish with is, Where is your medal displayed?
Greider: The official Nobel medal is actually solid gold and a lot heavier than you might think, so for the time being I have that in a safe deposit box until I figure out what to do with it. I did get several replica medals, though, and I do have one of those displayed.

Nick Zagorski ( is a freelance science writer.

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