12/03/2013 09:04 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2014

The Pearl Meister Greengard Prize: Praising Pioneers in Biomedical Research


Dr. Huda Zoghbi, 2013 PMG Prize Recipient (image courtesy of The Rockefeller University)

There is nothing particularly remarkable about a woman doing science. Any person -- man or woman -- who shows an intellectual curiosity combined with a strong work ethic, good decision making, and a little bit of luck can be successful in science. What is remarkable, however, is the severe underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. And for the few women who pursue these career endeavors, their achievements, however great, often go unsung.

To help counteract the inequitable distribution of scientific recognition specifically in biomedical research, Dr. Paul Greengard used the entirety of his 2000 Nobel Prize winnings to establish the Pearl Meister Greengard (PMG) Prize, which spotlights the extraordinary achievements of women in science and hopefully inspires future generations of women scientists in their pursuit of scientific careers. Named after his mother, Pearl Meister, who died while giving birth to him, Dr. Greengard also uses this prize for a very personal reason: to help make the idea of his mother seem less abstract.

Now in its 10th iteration, the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize has been awarded to an outstanding array of pioneering scientists, honoring their contributions to the advancement of biomedical research:

Nicole le Douarin (2004)
Developmental Biology

After spending several years as a high school science teacher, Dr. Le Douarin turned toward biomedical research, studying liver and digestive tract development in chick embryos. During the 1970s, she pioneered a research approach that helped developmental biologists understand where certain cells in a embryo end up in a developed organism. This work ultimately paved the way for the field of developmental biology. The Honorable Sandra Day O'Connor presented the PMG Prize to Dr. Le Douarin in 2004.

Phillipa Marrack (2005)

Dr. Marrack, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute scientist, began her work in biomedical research during the mid 1960s. Over the next few decades, Dr. Marrack, along with her husband and scientific partner, focused on the immune system -- specifically a type of immune cell called a T-cell. Together, they worked out the molecular mechanisms for T-cell maturation, effectively laying the foundations for modern immunology research. Journalist Helen Thomas presented Dr. Marrack with the PMG Prize in 2005.

Mary Lyon (2006)
Genetics Research

Dr. Lyon began her scientific research career in the 1940s, originally taking an interest in zoology. But in 1960, when she came across a genetic abnormality in a particular mouse, her focus shifted toward understanding the genetics, specifically that which pertained to the X chromosome. Combining her findings with recent reports within the genetics community, Dr. Lyon discovered the process of X-inactivation (also called lyonization). This phenomenon occurs in females and involves turning off either the X chromosome from the father or the X chromosome from the mother. A famous example of X-inactivation is the mottled coat color of the calico cat. Dr. Lyon was presented the PMG Prize in 2006 by author Joan Didion.

Gail Martin, Beatrice Mintz, and Elizabeth Robertson (2007)
Transgenic Technologies

Drs. Martin, Mintz, and Robertson all come from different backgrounds, but their independent biomedical research projects drove them to intersect. Their combined efforts centered on harnessing embryonic stem cells for the creation of genetically modified animal models, which has had significant implications for biomedical research, particularly when it comes to discovering mechanisms of human disease. The PMG Prize was awarded to Drs. Marin, Mintz, and Robertson by archaeologist Martha Sharp Joukowsky in 2007.

Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Vicki Lundblad (2008)
Cellular Ageing and Cancer

When DNA replicates in our cells, the ends -- called telomeres -- are subject to degradation. The work pioneered by Drs. Blackburn, Greider, and Lundblad identified the mechanisms responsible for the shortening of DNA during cell division and how this process is linked to aging. Furthermore, this research opened doors to understanding the biology of cancer cells, which are essentially immortal. The PMG Prize was presented to Drs. Blackburn, Greider, and Lundblad in 2008 by the former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson. (Note: Drs. Blackburn and Greider received, along with Dr. Jack Szostack, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for this work.)

Suzanne Cory (2009)
Immunology and Cancer Biology

Dr. Cory's research focused on how certain genes can affect cell division and how this relates to cancer. She began her fascination with biology in high school after learning that a single molecule of DNA is what makes up a chromosome. She followed this passion, earning her Ph.D. under the mentorship of Francis Crick, eventually ending up running her own lab in Australia. Dr. Cory's work has vastly improved our understanding of oncogenes and the development of cancer. International AIDS advocate Wafaa El-Sadr presented Dr. Cory with the PMG Prize in 2009.

Janet Rowley and Mary-Claire King (2010)
Cancer Biology

Drs. Rowley and King made significant contributions to our understanding of cancer biology. Dr. Rowley identified chromosomal abnormalities that result in leukemia and other cancers. Research from Dr. King's laboratory led to the identification of the oncogenes involved in the development of breast cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2. Together, this work has opened up the possibilities for both diagnosis and treatment of many types of cancer. The PMG Prize was awarded to Drs. Rowley and King in 2010 by journalist Andrea Mitchell.

Brenda Milner (2011)
The Study of Memory

Dr. Milner's work centered on one of the most famous patients in modern medical history: Henry Molaison, also known as HM. After a temporal lobotomy rendered HM virtually unable to form short-term memories, Dr. Milner chronicled HM's learning, ultimately showing that forming and storing memories can be traced to specific regions in the brain. This went against the dogma of the time, forever changing the landscape of cognitive neuroscience. The former president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, presented Dr. Milner with the PMG Prize in 2011.

Joan Steitz (2012)
RNA Biology

It is well known that DNA encodes proteins, and that RNA is the molecule that makes it all happen. But how? This question was the focus of Dr. Steitz's research, which helped to identify the molecular machinery that splices RNA -- a process that is required for providing the correct information for protein synthesis in most eukaryotes. Dr. Steitz was presented with the PMG Prize in 2012 by celebrated aquanaut Sylvia Earle.

The 2013 PMG Prize will be awarded to Dr. Huda Zoghbi for her insights into neural development. This ceremony will take place at The Rockefeller University on Dec. 5, highlighting how Dr. Zoghbi has unraveled the genetic underpinnings of several neurological disorders. Ursula von Rydingsvard, New York City-based sculptor and co-founder of the PMG Prize, will present Dr. Zoghbi with this award.