At first glance, the items in the title of this entry don't make any sense together - what could lowly grad students possibly have to do with the Nobel Prize?!  But dig a little further and the connections become clear...

Yesterday, it was announced that a group of American scientists had received the Nobel Prize in medicine for their work on telomeres and their associated proteins.  Telomeres are short, repetitive DNA sequences that bind different proteins and essentially acts like a protective lid or a cap for the chromosomal ends.  As cells divide, telomeres become shorter - and when they become too short, the cell initiates its own death.  Therefore, telomeres are of great interest to scientists studying the process of aging and also cancer.  Drs. Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak were the first to discover telomeres, and Dr. Blackburn and her former graduate student, Dr. Carol Greider, identified the enzyme (telomerase) that makes new telomeres.  All three were awarded with the Nobel Prize.

As a woman in science, this event was also notable because it was the first time that more than one woman had received the Nobel Prize.  The pioneering research began in the late 1970s and 1980s, at a time where there were still few women in science.  I especially enjoyed this quote in the CNN article:

She also said telomere research has a higher proportion of women than other fields because in its early days, the lead researchers brought women into the field. She called it a situation in which "you have someone that trains a lot of women and then there's a slight gravitation of women to work in the labs with other women."

She added, "I think actively promoting women in science is very important because the data has certainly shown that there has been an underrepresentation. And I think that the things that contribute to that are very many ... subtle, social kinds of things."

In regards to women's health, telomeres have been of great interest to those developing and practicing assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs).  The chromosomes of a woman's eggs are capped by telomeres like any other cell.  In a study looking at IVF success rates, it was shown that there was a positive correlation between successful pregnancy and telomere length.  There may also be a link between telomeres and the age-related decline in a woman's fertility.  For example, artificially shortening telomeres in mice led to chromosomal defects identical to those that occur in eggs from women of an older age.  We have yet to see any therapeutic solutions come out of telomere research in a fertility context, but it is promising to know that scientists have gained a better understanding of why our eggs go "bad" as we get older.  Perhaps soon, it won't be such a burden to delay childbirth (for those who desire biological children) for the sake of establishing our lives and careers before starting a family!

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Women graduate students, even! It's a wonderful field to work in. I'm a female graduate just finishing up my first year of a doctoral program in the telomere lab that produced the oocyte telomere length vs. IVF success rates papers you cited. Titia de Lange and Maria Blasco are the two names I always look out for in the telomere literature.

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