Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn holding a fluorescent telomere.
Image: UNSW Centre for Ideas

Elizabeth Blackburn: The Telomere Effect

Presented by UNSW Science & UNSW Centre for Ideas

Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn delivers the inaugural Gerald Westheimer Lecture, chaired by UNSW Sydney’s Dean of Science, Professor Emma Johnston.

Why does ageing take such different paths for different individuals? Why do some of us remain healthy and active into later life, while others age more rapidly?

Elizabeth Blackburn’s discoveries about telomeres; the protective caps at the end of our chromosomes, and the enzyme telomerase have transformed the way we think about these important questions and earned her a Nobel Prize in 2009.

Although we have long understood the impact of our genetic inheritance on our health, Blackburn’s work has shown us the key role that telomeres and the enzyme telomerase play in the ageing process.

Be part of a special event with Elizabeth Blackburn as she discusses her work in this fascinating space and its implications for the future of ageing.

This event is an initiative of UNSW’s Faculty of Science and is supported by the Crawford Fund and Science & Technology Australia.

Dr Elizabeth Blackburn has been a leader in the area of telomere and telomerase research, having discovered the molecular nature of telomeres – the ends of eukaryotic chromosomes that serve as protective caps essential for preserving the genetic information – and co-discovered the ribonucleoprotein enzyme, telomerase. She is also known for her championing of diversity and inclusion in the sciences. Blackburn and her research team also collaborate in a range of investigations of the roles of telomere biology in human health and diseases, through clinical and other human studies. Born in Australia, Dr Blackburn earned degrees from the University of Melbourne, University of Cambridge and Yale University. She has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award for Basic Medical Research, and in 2007 was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

Professor Emma Johnston AO is Dean of Science and Professor of Marine Ecology and Ecotoxicology at UNSW Sydney. A highly awarded scientist and educator, Professor Johnston has published more than 141 peer-reviewed articles and supervised more than 20 successful PhD graduates. Selected prizes include the Australian Academy of Science’s inaugural Nancy Mill’s Medal for Women in Science (2014), and the 2015 Eureka Prize for the public communication of science. In 2018 Emma was awarded the Clarke Medal of the Royal Society of NSW and named an Officer of the Order of Australia for “distinguished service to higher education, particularly to marine ecology and ecotoxicology, as an academic, researcher and administrator, and to scientific institutes”. A strong advocate for equity and diversity in STEM and for sound environmental management, Professor Johnston is President of Science & Technology Australia (STA) and sits on the Board of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) and the Australian Antarctic Foundation (ASF). She consults with industry through the development and implementation of new biomonitoring techniques and environmental monitoring programs and frequently contributes expert opinion to state, federal & international government agencies.

The donor who enabled this Lectureship, Professor Westheimer, is an Australian Scientist living in California. At 95, he is still active at the Berkeley School of Optometry where he conducts research on the eye, its optics and how we see details in space and in three dimensions. Professor Westheimer has seen firsthand the benefits of exposure to a diversity of knowledge and culture around the world, and hoped to share this influence with his alma mater. Born in 1924, he migrated to Australia from Germany in 1938 and later enrolled in the professional Optometry program at the Sydney Technical College (UNSW’s precursor institution), graduating in 1943 with Honours and the College Medal. In 1951, he moved to California where he has built a long and successful career in neurobiology. Professor Westheimer ‘still calls Australia home’ and has remained a proud long-time supporter of UNSW. In 2016, the University graduated the third generation of the Westheimer family.