By MARSHA MERCER
Growing up in Hawaii, Jennifer Doudna loved exploring
the exotic rainforest near her home.
Fascinated by a plant whose leaves folded shut when
she touched them, she knew a chemical reaction was involved. But why did it
Doudna’s high school chemistry teacher encouraged her to
pursue her questions and study science.
The curious girl eventually became a superstar of
science -- professor of molecular and cell biology and of chemistry at the
University of California, Berkeley, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute
investigator and executive director of the Innovative Genomics Institute at
On Tuesday, Doudna, 56, received the Nobel Prize for
chemistry for developing the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology. The CRISPR
tool can change DNA in plants and animals and is used widely to treat cancer
and cure inherited diseases.
She shares the prize with her French research
collaborator, Emmanuelle Charpentier, 51, who lives in Berlin. The two are only the sixth and seventh women ever to win the
Nobel for chemistry.
“This year’s prize is about rewriting the code of
life,” said Goran Hansson, secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of
Sciences, announcing the prize.
It was a good week for science and scientists.
Nobel prizes also
were announced for physics and medicine. The physics prize went to three
scientists for their work on black holes, and the medicine prize to three scientists
who discovered the hepatitis C virus.
committee said by discovering the virus the scientists had “made possible blood
tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives.”
The Nobel prize guarantees
international acclaim, a place in history and cash prizes each worth about $1.1
In this country, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur
Foundation named several scientists among the 21 winners of what are popularly
known as “genius grants.”
The foundation does not like the term genius because
it connotes only a very high I.Q. It calls the winners fellows, who are
brilliant and highly original and creative.
Each fellow receives a no-strings-attached grant of $625,000
paid out in quarterly installments over five years.
The money is liberating, but what makes the award so
coveted is being recognized as exceptional in one’s field. You can’t apply for
a MacArthur grant; you are chosen. Just about the only requirement is fellows
must either live in the United States or be a U.S. citizen.
The Nobel and MacArthur awards remind us in 2020 of
the good that comes when we believe in science and reward scientists. The
recipients have devoted their lives to making the world a better place at a
time when science is often disparaged and scientists denigrated. Their personal
stories will inspire a new generation.
This year’s MacArthur class includes Damien Fair, 44,
a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine who
studies the developing brain from infancy to young adulthood. His research aims
to improve the long-term health for kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity
Disorder, autism and other conditions.
Catherine Coleman Flowers, 62, of Montgomery, Alabama,
is an environmental activist who works on sanitation and wastewater issues in
Some of the winners focus on theoretical research,
others work in more practical fields and some do both. During the pandemic,
Doudna is using the CRISPR system in her lab to search for a simple,
inexpensive test to detect the novel coronavirus in people’s saliva.
The sole American sharing the Nobel physics prize is astrophysicist
Andrea Ghez, 55, a professor at UCLA who discovered an invisible and extremely
heavy object that governs the orbits of stars at the center of our Milky Way
galaxy. A supermassive black hole is the only currently known explanation.
She is only the fourth
woman to win the Nobel for physics. Marie Curie was the first in 1903.
Ghez has the distinction of also winning a MacArthur “genius
grant” in 2008. She used three-quarters of the prize money in ways other parents
will appreciate – on her two children.
“Just hiring more help with the logistics of life and
not feeling that was a bad thing – it was part of doing my job well,” Ghez told
The New York Times in 2015. “I was so thrilled that I could have a work and
We’re thrilled she could too. Everyone benefits from
the hard work of these dedicated scientists.
(c) Marsha Mercer 2020. All rights reserved.