Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna thanks Puerto Rico

[Many thanks to Michael O’Neal for bringing this item to our attention.] Kevin Alicea Torres (El Nuevo Día) writes about Dr. Jennifer Doudna, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and her statement that she will always be grateful to Puerto Rico and the important role the island played in the history of this award.

On the island, Dr. Jennifer Doudna met the expert with whom she shares the award for the creation of genetic scissors. [. . .] It was at a Microbiology conference—held here [in Puerto Rico]—that he met Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier, with whom she shares the Nobel Prize, and on the streets of San Juan, where they discussed, for the first time, the potential of the CRISPR-Cas9 “molecular scissors” as a method for editing genomes (sets of hereditary material of an organism).

“It was while we were walking in the streets of Old San Juan that Emmanuelle and I spoke about starting a collaboration between our laboratories to study CRISPR-Cas9 and learn how it worked,” said Doudna during her virtual keynote “De niña isleña a Premio Nobel” [From Island Girl to Nobel Prize], which she recently offered to the Puerto Rican community invited by the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in Humacao.

With much enthusiasm, Doudna, who is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, expressed that she will forever hold Puerto Rico in her heart as the place that played a central role for her and Charpentier in the work they did together, which earned them the Nobel Prize.

The CRISPR-Cas9 genetic scissors allow researchers to edit the DNA of animals, plants, and microorganisms with extremely high precision. Its use contributes to innovative therapies against cancer and the possibility of curing hereditary diseases. In the world, laboratories have redirected the course of their research programs to incorporate this new tool, which carries positive outcomes for biology and medicine.

During her presentation, Doudna, who grew up in Hilo, Hawaii, spoke about the early days of her scientific career and the challenges she faced as a woman in science. She shared that, growing up in that state, “it was not ‘cool’ to be a girl who liked science or who liked to study.”

Although her career has been successful, she admitted that she has suffered from imposter syndrome and shared one example of many with the audience. “I remember when I got the call that I was accepted into the doctoral program of my dreams, I was in my bedroom and I said, ‘They must have called the wrong person,’ but this was my imposter syndrome,” she said. In concluding, Doudna advised young people interested in science or chemistry “to go after their dreams.”

The science behind the Nobel

Following the keynote address, the panel “Diálogo en español: entendiendo la ciencia detrás del Premio Nobel” [Dialogue in Spanish: understanding the science behind the Nobel Prize] was held, led by a group of researchers working with Doudna at the Institute for Innovative Genomics.

[. . .] For Puerto Rican and UPR-Humacao graduate Luis Valentín Alvarado, this technology has the power to modify any genetic sequence in a programmable, precise, and efficient way. “Recently, we have been able to use variants (versions) of CRISPR-Cas9 to detect specific sequences of the coronavirus in samples of patients with COVID-19,” said Valentin Alvarado, PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of California at Berkeley.

On the other hand, Cindy Sandoval Espinoza, Doudna’s laboratory research assistant, stressed that it is important to educate communities about the CRISPR-Cas9 technology and encourage conversation about this method. “It is extremely important to have ethics committees and to be very transparent with the public about the research we are doing and our goals with this technology,” said Sandoval Espinoza. [. . .]

[Jennifer Doudna’s lecture, which was sponsored by the Puerto Rico Outstanding Undergraduate Diversified (PROUD) program and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), was streamed live on Facebook.]

Excerpts translated by Ivette Romero. For original article (in Spanish), see

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