Dr. Carol W. Greider is the mother of two, as well as the Daniel Nathans Professor and Director of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Johns Hopkins University. In 2009 she was awarded, along with Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Jack W. Szostak, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for the discovery that telomeres, the ends of chromosomes, are protected from progressive shortening by the enzyme telomerase. We spoke on April 1, 2011, two weeks before Dr. Greider’s 50th birthday.
I was asked by some friends at the gym to join their team in a fundraiser where I will ride a bike for 140 miles. And I thought to myself, Well, I’ve ridden a century before. I should be able to do this. And then I looked back and I said, Wait a minute. I was 25 when I rode a century [laughs]. And so when I went on my first training ride last weekend it was a little bit harder than I thought it was going to be. And I realized, Oh yeah, I did that when I was 25 and now I’m 50. I guess that was a while ago that I rode a century. So that was sort of the physical awareness of it.
But I had to go out and, you know, buy myself a new bike. So I’ve already bought myself the birthday present because I got on my old bike, which I rode my last century on, and I realized it was a 1985 bike. And things have progressed since then in terms of quality in shifting and various things like that. So having gone out on one pretty serious training ride with a group of serious riders, I decided I needed a bike.
It happens to coincide, in this case, with a number of other events in my life that would make me stop and reflect. And so it’s kind of a perfect storm, if you would. I won the Nobel Prize a year and a half ago, so I’m just kind of recovering from the frenzy of invitations and all of those kinds of things that I got from that. And so post-Nobel is kind of a time to take stock and sort of see what I’ve done and what I might want to do differently with a platform to be heard. And I also got divorced at the same time. So those three events all happening right around the same time make the 50 more of a milestone than it might otherwise be.
When things are caught up between two people, it’s hard to know where the crisis began [laughs]. I certainly wouldn’t say I’m having a mid-life crisis right now. I’m trying to, I would say, rebuild and reconfigure how things are going to be going forward. So I would say that right now it must be post-crisis, but it’s not clear whether I had a mid-life crisis or not.
Many of the scientists that I respect the most are so involved in either teaching or research. If they have their faculties, they’re into their 80s in the lab. And so it’s not a profession from which you fear that you’re going to have mandatory retirement or you won’t be able to continue. So in that case the Nobel didn’t necessarily change my career expectancy, if you can call it that, instead of life expectancy, but it does, of course, open up many avenues of having a voice somewhere. There are things other than just molecular biology. I mean, I love the work I do in the lab, but broader scale science policy, you know, influencing scientific directions from a much larger viewpoint, that I will have the opportunity to do if I want to. And so that’s part of the reflection, being able to say, Okay, maybe I can take stock and say, What is it that I do want to do now that I have many, many more doors open to me?
Certainly right now, having an 11-year-old and 14-year-old at home, I don’t want to make any huge changes. I’ve just been through huge changes, but I have the luxury to be able to think five, ten years down the line what I might want to be involved in, and to take my time to consider those things carefully.
I don’t really do things in reference to my age, so much. I mean, I think about things in terms of the kids’ age and that it will be two years and my son will be driving [laughs]. It will be five years and he’ll be in college. Those kinds of things, how many years it will be. But I don’t usually, you know, refer back to ‘I will be X years old.’
The role of science in our society today, the degree of science literacy, women in science. I have a perspective now from a seat a little bit higher up as a department chair at a major medical school that I see things that I just didn’t see before. So those sort of larger societal issues are some things that I may be able to play some role in working on.
Certainly being in a situation of several different major changes with all of the attention from the Nobel and people wanting this and wanting that and having to learn to say, “No.” And all the changes with the divorce. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and I would want to have more peace of mind. Not so much any particular job or position I would have, but more peace of mind, internal calm. Having things be able to come back to some sense of normalcy, I think, is the first step. Which means, as a recent Nobel laureate, saying, “No,” an awful lot.
It was really important to me to be independent and support myself. You know, to be able to support myself financially. And now it’s not important because I am [laughs].
I was never a kid that like had a particular ‘I want to be X.’ I think I was just, you know, getting through my days. I mean, I’ve been asked a lot after the Nobel, “Well, did you always want to be a scientist?” And, you know, I wasn’t the kid that had the chemistry set that was, “Oh yeah, I want to be a scientist one day.” It was more like when I found in college that I really enjoyed working in a laboratory and doing the kinds of intellectual thinking that I found myself doing. I liked it. And I said, “I want to keep doing things that I like.”
The moon landing. We watched it. My father took us out of school, so we stayed home for at least a day and watched it on TV. And amazingly, also, stayed home during the Nixon impeachment hearings. For a week. Stayed home from school and watched the hearings on TV.
My father was a physicist and he was enamored of those kinds of things. I don’t know what else he was enamored of, but he certainly was very excited about the moon landing. And so those kinds of things rub off on kids. And that continued through all the initial Shuttle launches, and things like that always, you know, it gives me goose bumps. And so it’s an emotional reaction rather than a scientific one. But I think part of the emotional component comes from the environment and my father’s excitement about it.
My fear of mortality went up several hundredfold after I had kids. I don’t really fear for my own not being here, but 25 years ago I was riding bikes a lot and then I basically stopped riding on the roads. I haven’t ridden for 15 years—and my son is 14—because of the danger of my being killed by a car on a bike [laughs]. And so that was very clear to me, that something I liked doing very much I just gave up because of the fear of not being there for my kids. And that also comes back to the fact that my mother died when I was very young. My mortality fears are all tied up with being there for them.
I only have my kids half of the time—which kills me—every week. So it increases the pressure, because I only get to see them half the time.
Having kids is different. I mean, you make a choice. Am I going to be somebody in life that goes through without having kids or am I going to be somebody that has kids? That’s a major choice. And one that I cared about. So I made changes in my life to make that happen. One can always change one’s life.
I think that the term ‘having it all’ paints a very rosy picture of, you know, a house with a picket fence and nice shutters and that kind of stuff. And in fact, life is very messy. You get from Point A to Point B via Z, D, F, G and K. And so those kinds of terminologies of ‘having it all’ are really offputting because they don’t really acknowledge the path. But when young women ask my advice about “Can I be a scientist and have a family and a career?” I tell them, “Absolutely. You should do what you love to do. And then you have to find the path and the way to go and do that.” And I don’t say it’s going to be easy. But if there’s something that you love doing and you want to have a family, then you find a way to do it. And there’s not one way. So yes, I encourage people to follow what they find is exciting, but I don’t consider that ‘having it all.’ I consider that doing my best to try and balance and run around and make choices and make sacrifices every day.
Of course love is possible. But love isn’t necessarily romantic love with dating and stuff like that. I mean, I have a lot of close friends, and love is what it’s all about. And kids and things like that. But what I care about most is the kids and being there for them. And what really matters, with kids that age, is just being there. Just spending the time with them. And then I have a lot of interesting things that I’m doing at work, and then a lot of interesting other opportunities, so I certainly don’t feel like I’m missing anything. Not right now. I mean, who can tell what’s going to happen in five or ten years? But that’s not my priority right now.
It’s the people and your interactions with them that matter.