A recent Nobel Prize belongs to one of Davis’ own – former Davis resident, Professor Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins University.
Greider was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine on Oct. 5, alongside Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak, for her co-discovery of telomerase. With this award she joined the rank of only nine other women to ever receive a Nobel Prize in medicine.
Greider graduated from Davis High School in 1979. She attended Birch Lane Elementary School, West Davis Elementary School, West Davis Intermediate School and Emerson Junior High School. She earned her undergraduate diploma from UC Santa Barbara and went on to obtain her doctorate from UC Berkeley in 1987.
During her graduate studies at UC Berkeley, while working in fellow recipient Blackburn’s lab on Christmas Day in 1984, the 23-year-old Greider observed an X-ray that eventually led to the discovery of the enzyme telomerase.
Sean Burgess, UCD associate professor of molecular and cellular biology, was once one of Blackburn’s students at UC San Francisco. She now presents Greider’s experiments in her molecular biology course.
“Every year I emphasize the significance of the work and even speculate on the worthiness of this work for a Nobel Prize,” Burgess said.
UC Davis Plant Biology Assistant Professor Simon Chan formerly worked with Blackburn in her lab and said he had premonitions of this day.
“[The award] was predicted,” Chan said, “but it doesn’t change anything. We’re still really excited.”
Burgess said that Greider’s work originated from the need to understand the “end replication problem”, in which chromosome ends should, in principle, get shorter with every cell division.
“The discovery of the enzymatic activity of telomerase is significant in several respects,” said Burgess.
Telomerase is present in rapidly dividing cells, which keeps genetic information intact from one cell division to the next. This protection of each cell’s genetic information shows how telomeres, the region of DNA at the end of the chromosome, delays the aging of cells.
Telomerase is activated in dividing cancer cells as well.
“Telomerase acts as the nexus of aging and cancer,” Burgess said.
Davis Joint Unified School District will recognize their alumni’s accomplishment on Oct. 15. A released resolution expressed the school’s pride in Greider’s accomplishments and extended congratulations for the recognition of her scientific achievement.
Burgess stressed the significance of Greider’s educational history in California.
“I think it is wonderful that Carol is a product of the California education system at all levels – from her education in the state K-12 system, in Davis no less, as an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara and grad student at UC Berkley,” Burgess said. “In these times when our legislation is undervaluing the state’s public schools, it’s important to note products of the system.”
Greider’s late father, Kenneth Greider, a UC Davis physics professor, was the driving force behind her pursuit of scientific knowledge.
Professor Emeritus Glen Erickson of the UCD physics department knew Greider’s father well. Apart from being a fellow colleague, Erickson was a neighbor of the family, both living off of Sycamore Lane in Central Davis. Erickson believes Kenneth Greider had a strong influence on Greider’s research.
“Carol picked up willingness to do what she found interesting from Ken,” Erikson said.
UCD Physics Professor Winston Ko said he learned how to teach from Kenneth Greider.
“[Kenneth] Greider was one of the founders of Integrated Studies [at Davis],” Ko said in an e-mail interview. “I believe this innovative approach might even have some influence on Carol’s discovery.”
Erickson came to Davis in 1964, with Kenneth Greider joining only a year after.
“He would have been exceedingly pleased,” said Erickson of Kenneth Greider’s response to his daughter’s Nobel Prize.
KELLEY REES can be reach at firstname.lastname@example.org.