Q: How does curiosity drive research?
“I think of it kind of like surfing. Because when you’re surfing, you’re on a wave, and the wave is constant. Yet what is actually moving you forward is always changing. I started working on telomerase, and we made a fundamental discovery and that was exciting. And then there was a lot of work to do on the biochemistry of the enzyme. Then we got interested in what the enzyme does in human cells, and that took us into an area called cellular senescence. That led to the question, ‘If cellular senescence limits cell division, what about the role of short telomeres in cancer cells, which can grow independent of the cellular senescence phenomenon?’ So I had to learn the whole field of cancer research. Then it turns out there’s another pathway by which telomeres can be maintained, completely in the absence of telomerase! Every few years, I’ve had to learn a whole new body of literature and a whole new sub-field within biology. The fields keep changing underneath me.
“It takes discipline to not get stuck in your own beliefs—‘this is how I’m thinking about things, and just because that’s how I’m thinking about things, that’s how they are.’ We talk about this all the time when we do group meetings. You don’t do a series of experiments to show something. You do a series of experiments to test something. You’re testing whether something is true, not trying to prove something is true.
“A lot has been said about the fact that funding agencies are pushing really hard toward application- and disease-oriented kinds of research. And yet, I have been continuously funded by the NIH for over 27 years. So there is room in the funding agencies for curiosity-driven research, which I think is fortunate.”
Johns Hopkins molecular biology professor Carol Greider’s office door recently bore a sign created by her young daughter: CONGRATS!!! UR THE #1 MOM, BOSS, COLLUEGE [sic] AAAAANNNNNNND NOBEL PRIZE AWARD WINNER!! Along with Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco and Jack Szostak of Harvard Medical School, Greider won the 2009 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. The award recognized their discovery of the enzyme telomerase, which regulates telomeres, the DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes that play a vital role in cell division.