Fireside chats have become a staple of pandemic-era virtual events. The reasons are clear: they offer a glimpse into an otherwise private conversation and it’s entertaining to listen to two scientists “talk shop.” When the scientists are two of the top scientists in the world, who also happen to be women, it is a rare, and valuable, moment. Indeed, when Jennifer Doudna, PhD, and Frances Arnold, PhD, chatted recently during the Spark 2021 conference, hosted by Illumina, one viewer noted that they had “goosebumps.”
During the “Nobel to Nobel” discussion, Arnold and Doudna talked about CRISPR, the ethics of genome editing, working on COVID-19, starting companies, and winning the Nobel. But it was during their conversations about being women in science, and their stories of clearing hurdles to achieve extreme success, where their wisdom held the most inspiration.
The two scientists have a lot in common: both are academics who are also enthusiastically involved in industry and both have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry—two of only seven women who have won the prize.
The interview consisted of Arnold, professor at Cal Tech and newly appointed external co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), asking most of the questions. Here are a few highlights.
When Arnold asked Doudna, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, how she pivoted her lab to work on COVID-19 research a year ago, Doudna answered with “teamwork” and the collaborative nature at the Innovative Genomics Institute, which she co-founded a few years ago. The team there, she noted, quickly adapted to the changing circumstances and harnessed their expertise to address the pandemic. They have, in the past year, established a CLIA lab to provide COVID-19 testing for the Berkeley campus community as well as other community members in the Bay area such as first responders and firefighters. In addition, they work to develop CRISPR-based diagnostics for COVID-19 and future pandemics. Innovating for the future, Doudna said, is where science offers the most promise for the future. Being ready to seize that unexpected idea, she added, may end up going in a direction that “none of us could predict.”
Science is an endeavor of people
Pivoting to Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Code Breaker, Arnold asked Doudna what it was like to have one’s life “laid bare” by the best-selling author? Doudna said it has been a bit disconcerting to see her face on the cover of the book. But what attracted her to the project was telling the story of scientific discovery and the people involved in it. She noted that it is the people that make science such a wonderful adventure. And the story includes elements of collaboration and competition—both of which contribute to the kind of advances that she has been involved in.
When asked about the future of CRISPR, Doudna opined that it will consist of a combination of new fundamental discoveries and a convergence of new technologies. She added that CRISPR is able to uncover the functions of genes and pathways that were previously not able to be probed. In doing so, she noted, the process produces enormous amounts of data. She is excited about the opportunities with machine learning and data management to help understand those data.
Doudna hopes that there is an appreciation for the fact that fundamental discoveries come from unexpected directions. Science will drive future discoveries—and uncover the next CRISPR.
What was Doudna’s favorite collaboration? Not surprisingly, her work with Emmanuelle Charpentier, the scientist with whom she shares the Nobel Prize. It all started, she said, when they had lunch in 2011 at a conference in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. During that lunch, the two women—a microbiologist and a biochemist—agreed to team up to study the function of CRISPR-Cas9.
Women’s work matters
Arnold asked Doudna what receiving the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry meant to her. Doudna answered that, when women see other women receiving honors like this, it says that “women’s work matters.” That is a very important message, she said, especially for younger students dreaming about becoming a scientist. Her biggest obstacle, Doudna noted, is her own psyche; her own doubts and questions about herself. Over her career, she explained, like many people—and perhaps more for women—she has learned strategies for dealing with that self-doubt. This obstacle has always been something on her mind, both in her own life and when thinking about how to help enable future generations. There is not a one-size-fits-all answer. But Doudna said that we have to build an adaptable community of scientists who are supportive of each other that will, in turn, enable everyone to do their best work.
Doudna recalled a conversation in high school when a guidance counselor asked her what she wanted to do in the future. When she told him her hopes of becoming a scientist, he responded, “that’s not a good career for a girl.” His comment only made Doudna more determined to achieve her goals. Those types of comments, she noted, can be taken in one of two ways—you can allow it to build up your own negative voices or rise to the challenge. She has tried to view challenges along the way as opportunities. And when failures happen, she tries to learn from them and improve.
Ivory tower begone
Both women have been active in recent years in the business of starting companies. Arnold tells her students that a new discovery or technology is “not useful until someone uses it.” And, in order for people to use something, it has to be provided in a form that is useable—something, she says, that companies do very well. Doudna says that going to industry is not the one-way street that it used to be, with an increasing number of people going back and forth between industry and academia now. Arnold noted that basic and applied research are inextricably intertwined and “one can inform another in a very powerful way.”
In her new role in Washington, DC, Arnold thinks a lot about “how we can use science and technology to help solve the immense problems that society is facing: climate change, racial inequality, the pandemic.” She asked Doudna if she is hopeful that science can deal with these issues?
“I do have hope,” Doudna said. As difficult as the past year has been, she noted, it was also a triumph for science. The example of the mRNA vaccines, she said, is “simply extraordinary.” It’s important for people to realize that making an entirely new type of vaccine comes from decades of investment in fundamental science by the government. When Doudna looks at this particular achievement, she feels hopeful for the future.
As long as we invest in fundamental work, she said, she knows that great opportunities lie ahead.