Terra Sigillata

Lasker Awards 2006

This year’s recipients of the Lasker Awards were announced yesterday. These awards from The Lasker Foundation are often referred to as the “American Nobels.”

The award for Basic Medical Research went to three scientists for “the prediction and discovery of telomerase, a remarkable RNA-containing enzyme that synthesizes the ends of chromosomes, protecting them and maintaining the integrity of the genome.”

Elizabeth H. Blackburn (UC-San Francisco)
Carol W. Greider (Johns Hopkins)
Jack W. Szostak (Harvard)

Most cancer researchers, biochemists, and cell biologists know all three of these outstanding researchers. While I can’t claim being friends with any of these folks, I have spoken with Elizabeth Blackburn and have long admired her intellect. All three have published with each other and Grieder trained with Blackburn, doing the bulk of the bench biochemistry work required for the first purification of telomerase from Tetrahymena – a great day for women mentoring women.

I’m also particularly tickled to see Blackburn so recognized after her expertise on the President’s Council on Bioethics was minimized by political meddling, as I noted on the old blog.

The 2006 Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award was presented to Aaron T. Beck of the University of Pennsylvania, “for the development of cognitive therapy, which has transformed the understanding and treatment of many psychiatric conditions, including depression, suicidal behavior, generalized anxiety, panic attacks, and eating disorders.”

Cognitive behavioral therapy has arguably been the most significant step forward in psychology since Freud and Jung. Beck’s founding work opened the door to other visionary colleagues such as Martin Seligman, also at Penn, and the positive psychology movement, which stresses one’s control over cognitive processes to manage one’s mental disorders, alone or with pharmacotherapy.

Finally, Joseph G. Gall, currently of the Carnegie Institution in Baltimore but with most of his career spent at Yale, was recognized with the 2006 Albert Lasker Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science, “for a distinguished 57-year career – as a founder of modern cell biology and the field of chromosome structure and function; bold experimentalist; inventor of in situ hybridization; and early champion of women in science.”

It is very fitting for Dr Gall to be so recognized this year since he was, among many things, a mentor of Dr Blackburn’s:

In addition to exploring the nucleus, Gall has distinguished himself as a superb role model and mentor. Through respect, support, and the high standards that he sets in his research, he has nurtured a large number of young investigators who have gone on to achieve great success as independent researchers and leaders (see http://www.ciwemb.edu/labs/gall/index.php). In particular, he has built a strong record of training female scientists, three of whom, Mary Lou Pardue, Susan Gerbi, and Elizabeth Blackburn, served as American Society for Cell Biology presidents. Gall never made a conscious decision to promote women in science; rather, he realized before many of his peers the wisdom of accepting good students into his lab, regardless of gender.

Hearty congratulations to each of these tremendous medical research leaders for setting a very high standard, at the bench, in the clinic, and in scientific career development.