Thursday, October 8, 2020

When scientists were prized -- now! -- Oct. 8, 2020 column


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 happen?

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 Berkeley.

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.

The Nobel 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 million.

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 rural areas.

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 family life.”

We’re thrilled she could too. Everyone benefits from the hard work of these dedicated scientists.

(c) Marsha Mercer 2020. All rights reserved.

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