Telephone interview, October 2020
“It’s not about publishing in high-impact journals. It’s about solid work”
Telephone interview with Emmanuelle Charpentier following the announcement of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on 7 October 2020. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
In this interview recorded shortly after news broke of her Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Emmanuelle Charpentier tells Adam Smith of her surprise at receiving the call from Stockholm, despite considerable speculation that it might be coming her way. She speaks of the “explosion of knowledge and publications” that the CRISPR field has generated, the motivations behind her “brief but intense” collaboration with her co-Laureate Jennifer Doudna, the need for societal involvement in the conversation about the applications of technology and the importance of studying the microbiological world.
Emmanuelle Charpentier: Hello?
Adam Smith: Oh hello, am I speaking to Emmanuelle Charpentier?
EC: Yes, speaking.
AS: Hello. So could you just tell us, how did you hear the news?
EC: The general secretary Göran Hansson called me, at 10:59.
AS: Very precise. And I mean there’s been so much speculation about the prize for so long, it must have been strange, because in some ways you must have been expecting a call.
EC: You know I have been reminded thousands of times that one day … I mean one day surely CRISPR would be awarded, and that in this regard most likely my name will be mentioned, but I have to say that when he called I was totally … I could not believe it, I mean I was really … I mean I’m still emotional, because you don’t … I mean, again … And I think it’s maybe, I have to say, the fact that you hear it and that, as I said, you connect to it, but you still believe it’s another person or it’s surreal, it’s not … and when it happens, now it’s real and now I have to deal with it. But I also have to say I think a lot of all my colleagues of the CRISPR field who have really supported the new field of research, relatively young, it’s only, let’s say, I don’t know, 12 years old, it’s very recent. And I also think of my colleagues for sure, of all my former members of my team, Elitza Deltcheva and Krzysztof Chylinski, who really also made this happen.
AS: It must be just extraordinary to see the explosion in the field, it’s having such an impact so fast.
EC: Yes, I think it’s very unique because when you see all the field of just CRISPR biology, understanding the CRISPR-Cas systems in bacteria and archaea at the physiological level and even more at the mechanistic level, I mean this has been, you know, an incredible, how do you say, explosion of knowledge and publications. And then, you know, following the publication of the Science paper of Jennifer and I, the … I mean it was clear the scientific community was waiting for, let’s say, a tool that will simplify the genetics of their organisms of choice, and that everyone jumps on it. The development is incredible, the spectrum of applications, is quite incredible. And it has created actually also a lot of interest and I have to say a lot of jobs in the biotechnology field, in the communications field, in the … there is even a new journal, the CRISPR Journal … it has developed in incredible way.
AS: Indeed, and it’s sort of humbling to reflect on the fact that this is derived from something that you learnt from looking at bacteria. It kind of changes your view of humanity, and what nature has to teach us perhaps.
EC: Yes, and I think in, you know, I’m a microbiologist and I have always been interested in infectious diseases and my field of research is not really well recognised at the fundamental level, and so it’s good to see that there is still a lot to be … to learn.
AS: So, another question, I mean you are, you and Jennifer are the sixth and seventh female laureates. That takes the total from a little under three to a little under four percent of the total number of chemistry laureates being female. Do you think there’s something particularly important about the fact that this is an all female prize?
EC: I mean, you know, first I’m a scientist, but no, I think it’s, I mean, I think it’s very important because, because we see even more, how do you say, girls and young women choosing science, at least for the field of biology, and it’s very important to provide a message that you know the ultimate recognitions are, you know, how do you say, independent of the gender, and that I think it’s most likely a very positive message for the girls and the young women who wish to start science, continue in science, and to really provide a clear message that it is possible to achieve ultimate recognition even if you are female. I think it’s … obviously this is the first time, as far as I heard today that the prize is awarded to only female scientists. No, I think it’s … you know it is a reflection of what is occurring nowadays. You don’t specifically look at the gender, and, you know, it’s a good example to show that nowadays it is what happens, you have a lot of collaborations happening among, let’s say, male leaders only or female leaders only, or a mix, and it’s fine, it’s the way it’s supposed to be, it should be a natural process.
AS: Indeed. Of course Dorothy Hodgkin was awarded the chemistry prize alone, but this is the first time for two women. And talk about your collaboration with Jennifer Doudna.
EC: The collaboration was short and intense! Because, yeah, because obviously this was clear that, again I would say this, it’s thanks to the natural mechanism of CRISPR-Cas9 in bacteria. Sometimes you work on systems and you know it takes a long time to see what you would like to see or the research is not you know black and white, it is light grey or dark grey. And here it was really white let’s say. And then you know for sure, a wish from both sides, and an understanding that we needed to go fast because, you know, the story was a great one, so that’s why it was intense – it was a common understanding that it was important to join forces, and you know, and be fast. And also I have to say this is also part of the reason why I approached Jennifer Doudna, also, you know, we were very much in line in the way to do very precise research. It was not … it was fast but precise, and deep. For this we recognised one another – we are the same type of scientist who, you know, want to see the details of the data, so this was … I mean it’s important because, I think, you know, it’s important because you … this is not about a paper published in Nature or published in Science, as a matter of fact, you know, these research papers published in the high impact-factor journals. It’s really about, you know, solid work. And I want to say this because nowadays where everyone is, you know, how do you say, evaluated through a potential number of publications and H-index factors, this does not … it’s nice, but sometimes you just need one story, one very good story. You need time to do the work in a proper way, in a deep way and … and I want to mention this because I would not like to see science having lost this sense.
AS: It’s so important – progress does not come through impact factors, it comes through solid work, yes. The potential, of course, of CRISPR-Cas9 is great and wonderful, but it also has a slightly dark side that it could be misused. How do you think that should be regulated, how can we make sure it’s used for good?
EC: First of all, CRISPR-Cas has facilitated a lot, and genetics in research and development. But as to have it as a technology that can be used safely for the editing of the human germline it’s something else, first of all. And second of all one should not underestimate that fact that CRISPR-Cas9, even though it is a wonderful tool, it would be extremely difficult to get the technology to modify more than one gene at a time. So I think, let’s say, indeed unfortunately we may see unfortunate and really unwanted experiments.
AS: It’s just … yes, sometimes the science moves faster than society’s ability to think about the science, and I suppose that’s the thing.
EC: That is I think the case indeed for a lot of technologies. Technologies go faster than …
AS: Yeah. It’s been a huge pleasure speaking to you, I hope we can speak at greater length about all these important things soon. In the meantime …
EC: Thank you very much.
AS: Thank you and congratulations again.
EC: Okay, thank you. Bye bye.
AS: Bye bye.
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