Jennifer Doudna, New Nobel Laureate, on Science and Covid

Good morning.

Last week, Nobel Prize season arrived.

Among the several winners with ties to California were two Stanford professors — Paul R. Milgrom and Robert B. Wilson, were awarded the Nobel in economic science — and three University of California scholars. Reinhard Genzel, a U.C. Berkeley professor emeritus of physics and astronomy, and Andrea Ghez, a U.C.L.A. professor of astrophysics, shared the prize in physics with a mathematician at Oxford University for their work on black holes.

And Jennifer Doudna, a U.C. Berkeley professor, shared the prize in chemistry with Emmanuelle Charpentier, now the director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, for their work on Crispr-Cas9, a method to edit DNA.

[See the full list of 2020 Nobel winners and read more coverage here.]

It’s the first time the award has gone to two women, and Dr. Doudna is the first woman to win a Nobel Prize while she is still on the U.C. Berkeley faculty.

That role has kept her plugged into campus life in ways that have been both challenging and exciting in the pandemic, Dr. Doudna told me on Thursday. Her lab, for instance, rushed to start doing coronavirus testing back in March.

I asked her about how her work has shifted in the Covid era and about the role of science in 2020.

Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and condensed:

First of all, congratulations! How are you feeling?

I’m in total shock and I don’t feel like I really have had even a minute to think about it. There’s just so many things going on.

The thing I’m really grateful for is I had a chance to go to my lab yesterday. They had thrown together an impromptu party. We were all socially distanced and had our masks on and everything, but we hadn’t really been together like that as a lab in eight months.

I’m sure you’ve been asked variations of this so many times, but can you explain in as simple of terms as possible what you won for?

Well, I guess the simplest way to say that is that it’s for a technology for gene editing, which means, as I think the Nobel committee even worded it this way, changing the code of life. So it’s a way to alter DNA with precision and accuracy in cells to control cells’ fate. And even the properties of an entire organism.

It puts into science’s hands just extraordinary power to manipulate genes in ways that could lead to cures for genetic disease, to altering crops, to being able to deal with climate change. And then, of course, there are all of the kinds of research questions that require genetic manipulation.

[Read a review of “Editing Humanity,” a new book about the history of Crispr.]

It’s been almost 10 years since you started this work, which obviously presents some important ethical questions. And the world has changed so much in that time. Can you tell me a bit about how you think about ethics in science and whether that’s shifted?

Ethics has come to the front and center for me, because of the potential for genome editing to be used for really profound things, like changing the human genome in embryos for heritable changes in humans.

[Read about the uproar over the work of He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist who claimed to have created the world’s first genetically edited babies.]

So I’ve been increasingly involved in international discussions around this, going back five years — really trying to encourage transparency and just basic education about how the technology works.

I don’t know quite how to answer your question about change. Certainly the pace of science feels faster and faster and faster. And I think all of us are accessing information much more easily and quickly than we used to.

Preprints are now becoming in many ways the standard form of scientific communication. All of that has changed the way scientific information is assimilated and used to plan the next experiment.

In many ways that’s been really good. But it also means that there’s less time to reflect on, “What do we do next? What’s the right thing to do? How do we make sure it’s done properly?” There’s more of a — and I feel it — a race forward.

Do you think there’s a way of — and this is an oversimplification — putting the genie back in the bottle or slowing things down?

In a word: No. (Laughs.)

If not the pace, then is there anything you would change about the way science is seen and understood in the world today?

I’d love to see science become more integrated into our daily conversations. It seems that in the past, at least in certain societies, science was much more integrated.

And I would love to see us work toward that. We could be using different forms of media, whether it’s in cartoons or short videos, and more conversational use of language that isn’t exclusive — not using jargon.

One of the things that I’ve seen in my career is that there’s been an unfortunate change in the opposite direction where scientists are increasingly distrusted.

We see this news now, even during the pandemic. It’s quite frightening. I think we want to work backward.

Are you voting for the first time this election? Or is someone in your family? We want to hear about it.

What has your experience been like? What questions have you had and what races are important to you?

Source Article