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A Conversation with Nobel Women

As a science journalist, I’ve had the opportunity to interview several Nobel prize winners. Such high-profile scientists are usually pretty obsessed with their science and more than happy to talk about it all day. But it’s one thing to ask a Nobel winner to explain how her research fits into our greater understanding of life. It’s another to ask if she has any tips for balancing family life with lab life.

Yet I had just such an opportunity earlier this month when I got to listen in on a conference call of this year’s four science/economics women Nobel laureates, convened by Science deputy news editor Jeff Mervis. Jeff started off with the policy-oriented issues: What immediate steps should be taken to increase the number of women going into science and improve conditions for those already in the field? Are gender-based awards useful? How is it possible for an organization such as the National Institutes of Health to launch an award competition and announce a class of grantees that is all men?

Once everyone had warmed up a bit, we started in with some more personal questions. For example: To what extent do you have to blend your personal and your professional lives to achieve a balance? Has there been anything that’s helped you be successful in terms of managing your time?

Here are some highlights of the conversation:

On work-life balance:

Elizabeth Blackburn, age 60, professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: “I think that the message of balance is somewhat overplayed, in my view, because if you’re doing something intense like having a family and doing science, they’re both intense things, and so this idea that somehow every day is sort of balanced I think it’s really a bad message, actually, to try and send people. … So I try and send the message, for goodness sake, don’t go for balance. That sounds very boring to me, you know, in this sort of 9 to 5 and you’re balancing your life. Go for these things intensely in the periods when you have to go for them and the balance will take care of itself over decades.”

Carol Grieder, age 48, professor of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: “It’s actually very nice to be in science because what we’re judged on in the end is how productive we are and what we get done and it’s not necessarily 9 to 5, and so I feel like I do have a lot of freedom. You know, I’ll go out for my son’s play at school at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and then come back again, and that kind of freedom to have a flexible schedule, I think, is not always true in other professions. So it’s a reason for people to choose science over some other careers that they might have.”

Ada Yonath, age 70, professor of structural biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, who shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry:
“In my day-to-day life, I don’t sit and think about this, it just
comes. This is the way I am and this is the way I run my life, and I
don’t really sit and organize myself . … It just happens. And I’m very
happy that I have a very fantastic relationship with my daughter and
granddaughter, although I’m not what is called a normal mother, if
there is something like normal mother.” 

On choosing family and career:

– Indiana University professor Elinor Ostrom, age 76, the first woman to ever receive the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel: “Well, as a somewhat older participant, I had a clear decision and made a decision not to have a family because in earlier times that would have been a very, very difficult thing to accomplish.”

– Greider: “I come from the other spectrum in that I was able to see around me a number of women, including Liz, who were able to have children and have a career, and although there were many fewer women in the higher ranks of academia, there were still some to suggest that it could be done. So just in the same way that you have to go forward with experiments sometime, not knowing what’s going to happen, I just went forward with the experiment of having kids and the career and trying to do both full-time.”

– Blackburn: “I think there’s a lot of conventional ideas about what it should be to be a mother and, you know, certain sorts of formulary and stereotypes are there and I really think that they’re not terribly helpful, some of these ideas, because I really think children are busy, you know, scientists do get family lives that are, perhaps, different in some ways but not less good.”

And my favorite part of the conversation: Learning that Blackburn’s secret to balancing a successful scientific career and motherhood can be found in your grocer’s freezer section. I asked the laureates if there’s anything that’s helped them be successful in terms of managing their time. “Is it time for me to tell the Bagel Bites story?” Blackburn asked. “It’s about producing beautiful cookies or cupcakes with beautiful icing and you’re up till 2 a.m. making them for your children. This is what motherhood is supposed to be like, right?

“Well, it turns out that if you go to your supermarket, you can buy these little Bagel Bite things, they’re called commercially, and you put them in the oven and they have cheese on the top and they bubble and they’re lovely and brown and taste wonderful. And you take them to any children’s function, and the children swarm over them, they love them, … and it takes 12 minutes in the oven to cook. So my feeling is there’s plenty of time … to catch the essence of what it is that people like mothers to do, but you don’t have to do it in a very laborious, conventional way.”

Read more highlights of the interview in this week’s Science, listen to highlights in this week’s Science podcast, or listen to the entire interview.

And, for more on work-life balance (if there is such a thing) and other related Science Careers articles, check out Work and Life in the Balance, Mind Matters: On Balance, Scientists as Parents, and Reflected Glory: Life With a Nobelist Parent,