Students get a science lesson on how to tie up the loose ends of DNA

”I was pretty much a rebellious kid” … Elizabeth Blackburn speaks to students at the Garvan Institute about her work as a scientist.EVEN as a five-year-old, Elizabeth Blackburn questioned authority.

The Nobel laureate recalls being affronted when her kindergarten teacher told her not to use so much black chalk when drawing a picture of a train.

”I was pretty much a rebellious kid,” Professor Blackburn told an audience of high school students at the Garvan Institute in Sydney yesterday. ”Inside, I was thinking, ‘This is my train’,”

Challenging orthodoxy and being ”fearless” about embracing new ideas are characteristics she believes helped her achieve the highest accolade in science.

The idea that led to her 2009 Nobel Prize was ”heretical” at the time – that an enzyme might exist that could add DNA to the ends of chromosomes, and prevent them fraying away.

Professor Blackburn, Australia’s first female laureate, not only found the enzyme, which is important in cancer and ageing, she gave it a name, telomerase. ”I made the dictionary one word longer. I’m very proud of it,” she told the amused students.

She had to work hard too, of course, but she also enjoyed herself a lot.

”Sometimes we forget that doing science is actually fun,” she said, showing pictures of young members of her team in funny T-shirts, at messy laboratory benches and making a spoof video based on The Matrix about their results.

The Tasmanian-born researcher, who works at the University of California, is in Australia for a Hooked on Science national tour, encouraging young people into science.

She said her quality science education in Australia gave her a sense of what it was possible to achieve and the confidence to try.

But the humanity subjects like poetry and history also stood her in good stead, now her research had widened beyond understanding the intricate workings of a cell, to how social factors like chronic stress can affect health.

She encouraged the students to be both narrow and broad thinkers, immersed in detail, but able to stand back and consider the beauty and social implications of research.

”You should use science to benefit as many people as you can,” she exhorted them.

Felicity Brown, a year 10 student at Wenona School in North Sydney, said Professor Blackburn was inspirational. ”I admire her intelligence and passion.”

Her school mates said the talk made them feel they could help answer some big questions in science.

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