Telephone interview, October 2020
“It still amazes me every day”
Telephone interview with Jennifer Doudna following the announcement of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
“We had a sense that we were onto something big,” says Jennifer Doudna, as she recalls the start of her “curiosity-driven” research into CRISPR and reflects on the pace of the field today, in this short conversation. Speaking from her patio in the early morning in Palo Alto, Doudna describes how she was woken by a call from a journalist: “I assumed she was calling me to ask me to comment on somebody else winning the Nobel Prize!” The award of the prize to her and Emmanuelle Charpentier will, she hopes, be an encouragement to other women. “Sometimes,” she comments, “there’s a sense that no matter what they do, their work will not be recognised in the way it would be if they were a man.”
Jennifer Doudna: Hello, this is Jennifer.
Adam Smith: Oh hello, this is Adam Smith calling from Nobelprize.org, the website of the Nobel Prize.
JD: Yes, hi Adam.
AS: How lovely to speak to you. Where are you at this moment?
JD: I am sitting on my patio outdoors in Berkeley at my house, and I’m with a few people from Berkeley, from my campus, and of course we’re outdoors doing our social distancing thing, but it’s kind of lovely out here. It’s a bit cool, we’re in the garden.
AS: Nice way to start the day.
AS: I gather you were woken up by a call from a Nature journalist.
JD: Yes, isn’t that crazy. Heidi Ledford broke the news to me. And, Adam, I assumed she was calling me to ask me to comment on somebody else winning the Nobel Prize!
AS: The startling pace of CRISPR research and application must just amaze you. I mean you knew there was something there, but how does it feel to see what’s happened.
JD: It’s truly astounding. It’s extraordinary. Yeah, it’s just been amazing. I think we had a sense in those very early days, in my work with Emmanuelle, that you know we were onto something big, but I think we had no idea how big. And it still amazes me every day to see the extraordinary work that’s going on now globally with this technology, and yeah, thinking back about how it really started with just a curiosity driven project.
AS: That’s the lesson, what you can learn from bacteria.
JD: Exactly, and how much more they, I’m sure, still have to teach us.
AS: Yeah, precisely. In some ways it makes you look a little bit differently at nature to know that there are all these secrets hidden in what one would call ‘lesser’ species.
JD: You know, and I’ve heard many people say that to me, you know, when I would give talks about this work, many people have said almost exactly that, sort of surprised in a way, and saying ‘wow, bacteria are actually really cool!’.
AS: One thing people will focus in is the fact that it’s a prize to two female laureates, and what’s your … what do you have to say about that aspect of it?
JD: Well, I’m proud of my gender. I think, you know, and I’ve said this to my Berkeley colleagues this morning, but my feeling is that I think among women and girls that, you know, sometimes there’s a sense that no matter what they do that their work will not be recognised the way it would be if they were a man. And I just … I hope that this prize and this recognition changes that at least a little bit, and that it’s encouraging to other women who are in science, or even in other fields, to realise that, you know, their work can be honoured and that their work can have a real impact. And whether or not, you know, it’s a Nobel Prize or something else, that women have a really important role to play in the world, and that their contributions are, you know, can have real impact that is noticed.
AS: Have you had the chance to talk to Emmanuelle Charpentier yet?
JD: I’ve called her a few times, she’s called me a couple of times, we keep missing each other. I’m sure we’re both doing these sorts of things, and we’ve texted. I had the good fortune to have about an hour Zoom call with her a couple of weeks ago, which was great, and we had a chance to catch up on the Saturday morning, so I was … I’m glad for that, but of course I’m desperate to talk to her. I’m sure we’ll connect sometime today.
AS: I’m afraid it’s people like me phoning, and thousands of others phoning you all day long. It’s going to be quite a day you’ve got ahead of you.
JD: Yeah, I can see that.
AS: It’s been a huge pleasure speaking to you, thank you very much indeed, and congratulations.
JD: Thanks so much Adam, great to talk to you as well.
JD: Bye bye.
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Their work and discoveries range from the formation of black holes and genetic scissors to efforts to combat hunger and develop new auction formats.
See them all presented here.