Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Carol W. Greider, Ph.D.
MSA SC 3520-15533


Dr. Carol W. Greider (GRY-der) is one of most important scientific figures of modern times. As a molecular biologist, she has helped to expand the study of telomeres. Particularly, her discovery of the enzyme telomerase led to her winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009. This discovery has led to groundbreaking work in the fields of anti-cancer and anti-aging therapies, as well as heart-related diseases. Moreover, Dr. Greider's accomplishments have aided in the acceptance of women in the field of science, a discipline that has been unequivocally dominated by men. Dr. Greider is a woman of many talents, and her contributions to society will have implications that last for generations to come.

Carol Widney Greider was born April 15, 1961, in San Diego, California, to Kenneth and Jean Foley Greider. Her father was a physicist and her mother held a Ph.D. in Botany from the University of California at Berkeley.1 She and her older brother, Mark, grew up in Davis, California.2 The two walked to school together, and Greider credits this as the time when she first learned how to be independent, stating that, "For me, school was something that was a kid's responsibility. Parents were not really involved."3 Greider learned from an early age to take initiative, a trait that she has carried with her throughout her life.

Tragedy struck the Greider family in 1967 when Jean Greider, Carol's mother, passed away.4 Around the same time, Greider, six years old, was placed into remedial spelling classes.5 While she knows today that she suffered from dyslexia, Greider admits that during her childhood she felt "stupid."6 Despite these challenges, Greider maintained an ambitious love of learning, stating in a recent interview, "I didn't feel like I had been blocked by anything. That could be more a personality thing - I was pre-selected by being somebody that just ignored barriers."7

Greider maintained excellent grades in high school, but when it was time to apply for college, she was unsure which of her academic interests called to her the most.8 Inspired by her 12th grade biology teacher, she decided to major in biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, following her father's advice that, "You can do whatever you want, but you have to like whatever you do."9 While enrolled at Santa Barbara, Greider spent time studying abroad in Germany, where she first discovered her interest in chromosomes.10 It was this interest that would determine where she would study for graduate school, and lead to her revolutionizing discovery. She graduated from Santa Barbara in 1983 with her Bachelor's degree in Biology.

As Greider was looking at graduate schools, a chance conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn led to a discussion of Blackburn's study on chromosomes and telomeres - the protective caps found on the ends of chromosomes. The science of Blackburn's project fascinated Greider and steered her interest towards the University of California at Berkeley, where Blackburn taught.11 Greider was only accepted to two graduate schools, Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology, because her low GRE scores (her dyslexia made standardized test taking difficult) which made most of the schools where she applied overlook her. This made her decision to go to Berekely even easier.

The project Greider worked on with Blackburn at Berkeley was to answer the question: Why do telomeres not shorten when cells divide?12 This question had emerged as a result of several experiments completed by Blackburn and her colleague, Professor Jack Szostak, with telomeres in Tetrahymena (Pond Scum) and Baker's Yeast.13 During the division of cells in these organisms, specific enzymes make a copy of the chromosomes for each new cell. However, these enzymes are unable to copy the very ends of the telomeres (the tips of the chromosomes), just like a VCR cannot play the last few inches of a VHS tape, therefore shortening the chromosome each time a cell is copied.14

Yet, Blackburn and Szostak saw in their experiments that the length of the telomeres did not progressively shorten over time, as this theory of cell division assumed. They hypothesized that some unknown substance was maintaining the length of the telomeres, thus extending the lifespan of the cells.15 In her second year of graduate school, Greider was tasked with discovering this unknown substance. Using Tetrahymena cells (which contain over 40,000 chromosomes), Greider attempted to find the answer to this question.16 For nine months she found nothing, but on Christmas day in 1984 Greider went to the lab to check on her experiment, and discovered the enzyme she had been looking for.17

The enzyme, named telomerase, would be the discovery of a lifetime for Greider and her mentors. It would not be until the Spring of the following year that she ruled out any other explanation for what she was seeing in the lab, and confirmed that telomerase was indeed the enzyme that maintained telomere length.18 For the next two years, Greider would work on purifying and further characterizing telomerase.19 She received her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology in 1987, and immediately started her long and industrious career.20

In 1988, Greider received a prestigious independent fellowship at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and, by 1994, advanced to the position of Investigator.21 Greider continued her work on telomeres and telomerase, and also proved, with Calvin Harley, that the gene for telmoerase is activated in cancer cells, which allows cells to overcome cell death and continue growing as immortalized cells.22 She was not, and is not, the only person to work on studying telomerase. Nearly 1,000 papers are published each year related to the study of telomerase.23 The study of telomerase has contributed immeasurably to the understanding and treatment of cancer and anti-aging related diseases.24 In fact, it has been theorized by scientists that telomere length sets a limit on the lifespan of an organism.25

Greider also found personal success at Cold Spring Harbor. In 1993, she married Nathaniel Comfort, a science historian at Cold Spring Laboratory; together they have proudly raised two children, Charles and Gwendolyn.26 The family moved to Maryland in 1997, when both Comfort and Greider were offered teaching posts at George Washington and Johns Hopkins Universities, respectively.27 Greider steadily worked her way up the faculty positions at Johns Hopkins, and in 2003 was promoted to the position of the Daniel Nathans Professor and Director of Molecular Biology and Genetics.28 She has continued this post into the present day.

The sheer number of awards, honors, and grants Greider has earned are too many to list. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and was a part of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission from 1996-2001. She has served on the editorial boards of multiple science journals. In 2006, Greider won the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Reasearch, often considered a precursor to the Nobel Prize. That same year, she also won the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences, the first woman to do so.29 And, in 2009, Greider shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Drs. Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak for their work in telomeres, and their discovery of telomerase.30

Greider is the youngest woman to win the Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine (she was 48 at the time).31 She is also one of only ten women to win the Prize in Medicine, and one of 35 women total (compared to 754 men in 2009) who have won the Nobel Prize in any category since its inception in 1901.32 When asked about this discrepancy between men and women, especially in the field of science, Greider remarked, "I think the number of women in science doing high-powered work is quite remarkable. But the total number of Nobel Prizes going to women has sort of lagged behind."33  Furthermore, when asked to comment on the influence her winning the Nobel Prize would have on women in science, she responded: "This is one event. I'm not going to see one event and say it's a trend. I hope it is."34

Greider has continued her work on telomeres and telomerase at Johns Hopkins University, where she and her students study:
    -the effect of telomeres on cell death
    -DNA stability
    -regenerative disease
    -the potential relationship between stem cells and telomerase35

Looking back on her long and successful career, Greider remarked, "I never planned a career. I had these blinders on that got me through a lot of things that might have been obstacles."36 As a mother, scientist, and teacher, Greider has inspired women from across the world to be fearless in their pursuit of knowledge, and to treat obstacles as just another piece of the puzzle. She is an invaluable figure to the history of women in science, and her achievements will affect the scientific and history communities for years to come.

"The ideas generated are not always the result of one person's thoughts but of the interaction between people; new ideas quickly become part of collective consciousness. This is how science moves forward and we generate new knowledge."
-Dr. Carol W. Greider37

Written By Archival Intern Emily J. Steedman, B.A. History, A.A. Liberal Arts & Sciences

1. "Carol W. Greider - Biographical," The Nobel Foundation, (Accessed June 16, 2011).
    Return to text
2. Ibid. Return to text
3. Ibid. Return to text
4. Ibid. Return to text
5. Ibid. Return to text
6. Ibid. Return to text
7. Liz Mundy, "Carol Greider: Success is in her DNA," The Star, October 29, 2009, Google Search. Return to text
8."Carol W. Greider - Biographical," The Nobel Foundation. Return to text
9. Ibid., and "'Telomere' Expert Carol Greider Shares 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine," The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, (Accessed June15,
    2011). Return to text
10. "Carol W. Greider - Biographical," The Nobel Foundation. Return to text
11. Ibid. Return to text
12. Liza Mundy, "Success is in her DNA; Greider wins the Nobel Prize in a field in which relatively few women thrive," Washington Post, October 29, 2009.
    Suburban Edition. Lexis Research System. Return to text
    FUNCTION AND GENETICS," Baltimore Sun, September 17, 2006, Final Edition, Lexis Research System. Return to text
14. "Three American scientists win Nobel Prize in Medicine," USA Today, October 6, 2011, Academic Search Premier EBSCOhost. Return to text
15. Liza Mundy, "Success is in her DNA." Return to text
16. Michael Stroh, "A DOUBLE 'AMERICAN NOBEL.'" Return to text
17. Liza Mundy, "Success is in her DNA." Return to text
18. Michael Stroh, "A DOUBLE 'AMERICAN NOBEL.'" Return to text
19. Regina Nuzzo, "Biography of Carol Greider," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 102, No. 23 (June
    2005): 8077-79, (Accessed June 15, 2011). Return to text
20. "Carol Greider's CV," The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 1, (Accessed
    June 15, 2011). Return to text
21. Ibid. Return to text
22. Regina Nuzzo, "Biography of Carol Greider." Return to text
23. Ibid. Return to text
24. S.A. Nedospasov, "The Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for 2009," Biochemistry (Moscow) 75, No. 5 (2010): 665, Academic Search Premier
    EBSCOhost. Return to text
25. "Three American Scientists win Nobel Prize in Medicine," USA Today. Return to text
26. "Carol W. Greider - Biographical," The Nobel Foundation. Return to text
27. Ibid. Return to text
28. "Carol Greider's CV," The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 1. Return to text
29. Ibid., 11, 13. Return to text
30. Ann Geracimos, "Johns Hopkins professor shares in Nobel Prize; Carol Greider; 2 others win for work with chromosomes," Washington Times, October 6,
    2009, Lexis Research System. Return to text
31. S. A. Nedospasov, "The Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for 2009," 665. Return to text
32. Liza Mundy, "Success is in her DNA," and Kelly Brewington, "LOW KEY LAUREATE; HUMBLE HOPKINS SCIENTIST, COLLEAGUES WIN
    NOBEL PRIZE FOR WORK THAT COULD HELP FIGHT CANCER, RAVAGES OF AGING," Baltimore Sun, October 6, 2009, Final Edition,Lexis
    Research System. Return to text
33. Kelly Brewington, "LOW KEY LAUREATE." Return to text
34. Claudia Dreifus, "A Conversation With Carol W. Greider On Winning A Nobel Prize in Science," New York Times, October 13, 2009, (Accessed June 15, 2011). Return to text
35. "Carol W. Greider," NNDB, (Accessed June 15, 2011). Return to text
36. Claudia Dreifus, "A Conversation With Carol W. Greider." Return to text
37. "Carol W. Greider - Biographical," The Nobel Foundation. Return to text

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