A Nobel win for Blackburn and the US universities
Great news today with Australian born molecular biologist Professor Elizabeth Blackburn being awarded the Nobel prize for physiology and medicine.
Professor Blackburn becomes the first ever Australian woman to be awarded the prize in any category and the 36th woman ever out of 789 individuals to win the award.
Like most Australians I had never heard of Blackburn or her amazing research before today, but it now appears we are in clambering with America to claim her as one of our own.
While radio, newspapers and websites this morning were proclaiming that an Aussie science battler had pulled one back for the little country that could, news sources in the United States were doing the same claiming Professor Blackburn was, along with her other two co-winners, an American.
This from CNN.com:
3 Americans win medicine Nobel for chromosome research
(CNN)—Three U.S. researchers have won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for solving “a major problem in biology,” the Nobel Committee announced Monday.
Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak are credited with discovering how chromosomes are protected against degradation—a field that could shed light on human aging and diseases, including cancer.
No mention of Blackburn being Australian at all in the story.
The Wall Street Journal has a similar lead but at least mentions that Blackburn was Australian born.
Three American scientists received the Nobel Prize in medicine for discovering an enzyme that plays a key role in cellular health and aging. Their finding sparked a new line of research into possible treatments for age-related maladies, such as cancer, blindness and cardiovascular disease.
Well we’re both right, as Blackburn is a US and Australian citizen.
But given that the she has spent the more than the last 30 years of her life living overseas with 20 of that spent as Professor of Biology at the University of California it’s hardly surprising the US want to claim her.
The Melbourne Age was tenuously holding onto the “Melbourne educated” tag, which is true but only included her high schooling and her undergraduate degree.
Blackburn went on to do PhD at Cambridge and stints at Yale eventually ending up in California.
Whilst it’s hardly surprising that she would study overseas, it would be interesting if someone of Blackburn’s calibre today would be more or less likely to leave Australia today.
I suspect the answer would more than ever be no. A researcher friend of mine currently on a scholarship at Oxford responded when I asked him if he would return to Australia: “why would I?”
Our much talked about “brain drain” is critical in science, with most of our best and brightest shipped off to overseas institutes with better teaching and facilities. This wouldn’t be an issue if they returned to promote their research and teach here but the reality is that most don’t.
Another interesting point that Blackburn made this morning was the retention rate of women in the profession, pointing out that most left after completing their PhD.
But the problems extends much deeper to our schools and universities where we just aren’t getting the interest among students in studying science.
Blackburn’s achievement is amazing for her, her fellow researchers and the American universities that fostered them, yet it is not exactly a big win for Australia.
The critical years of training, research and teaching in her chosen field have all been done through better overseas universities, so we’ll excuse her if she doesn’t want to be singing in the next QANTAS ad.
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