Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Ph.D., a 2009 Nobel laureate who has specialized in telomere and telomerase research, was named the new president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies today, effective January 1, 2016.
“The Salk is full of absolutely terrific people and brimming with great science. Building on its distinguished history and current success, I am delighted to be playing a role in continuing and growing its major contributions to science and health research,” Dr. Blackburn said in a statement. “I am truly honored to be asked to be the next president of the Salk Institute.”
Dr. Blackburn has been a non-resident fellow at the institute since 2001, where she has been one of a group of investigators that advise the institute’s leadership and play key decision-making roles in appointing and promoting Salk professors. In addition, she has been the Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology in the department of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).
In 2009, she was named one of three co-winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.” Dr. Blackburn 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.
Those discoveries helped launch new research around telomeres and telomerase, both believed to play central roles in aging and diseases that include cancer.
In addition to the Nobel Prize, Dr. Blackburn has received nearly every major award in science, including the Lasker, Gruber, and Gairdner prizes. In 2007, she was named to the TIME 100 yearly list of the world’s most influential people. Dr. Blackburn is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the Royal Society of London.
Dr. Blackburn was born in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, to a family of doctors and scientists. Her parents were both family physicians, while her grandfather and great-grandfather were geologists.
Inspired by her fascination with animals and a biography of Marie Curie, Dr. Blackburn chose to also pursue a career in science. She earned her B.Sc. degree in 1970 and her M.Sc. degree in biochemistry, both from the University of Melbourne. She earned her Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Cambridge in 1975, then conducted postdoctoral research in molecular and cellular biology at Yale University from 1975 to 1977.
Dr. Blackburn joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley in 1978. She moved to UCSF in 1990 and chaired the department of microbiology and immunology from 1993 to 1999.
A former president of both the American Association of Cancer Research and the American Society for Cell Biology, Dr. Blackburn has also served as a member of the Stem Cell Research Advisory Panel for the California State Legislature—as well as a member of the President’s Council of Bioethics, an advisory committee from which she was dismissed in 2004 after clashing with the administration of George W. Bush over its policies limiting federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research.
At Salk, Dr. Blackburn will succeed William R. Brody, M.D., Ph.D., who is retiring effective December 31 after six years at the institute’s helm, during which he nearly tripled the institute’s endowment to $356 million, from $133 million in 2009.
“In retirement, Brody will continue to provide guidance to the Institute as a professor emeritus, and will pursue personal interests, including music and aviation, as well as continue his service on corporate and nonprofit boards,” the Salk Institute said in announcing his retirement on July 28.