Women in Science: Thoughts on the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna. Photo (left) by Biana Fioretti. Photo (right) by Duncan Hull. From Creative Commons.

On Oct. 7, an amazing advancement for women occurred for the first time in history: Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, a duo of female scientists, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry without a male contributor listed on the award. They were awarded this prize due to their research in genome editing with the tool called CRISPR. Whether you remember reading about CRISPR in AP Biology in high school or are actively involved with CRISPR as a chemistry or bioengineering student, what remains clear is that these two women paved the way for the next generation of female scientists, and for how genetic diseases will be cured. 

The Point talked with a female professor and two female students via email about this advancement. Each had much to share about their experiences as women in this field. Heidi Woelbern, a biology professor at PLNU, uses CRISPR in her research. Olivia Owen and Kaitlyn Morgan are both biochemistry majors.

The Point: What is genome editing and how has Charpentier and Doudna’s work changed the course of science in relation to DNA experiments?

Heidi Woelbern: CRISPR technology is revolutionary. The ability to edit genes within the genome is foundational to understanding what exactly they do. When I was in graduate school in the early 2000s, a graduate student might spend two years developing a mouse model in which a single gene was knocked out. For instance, if you were interested in diabetes, you might knock out one of the many genes thought to play a role in diabetes. You would then study the mouse to see if diabetes was ameliorated or then still persisted. With CRISPR technology, a knockout mouse model can be developed in about one month. The gene-editing capabilities are more precise, vastly cheaper and produce results in a fraction of the time.

Olivia Owen: The work of these two women with CRISPR is revolutionary. It’s going to be the foundation for so many other scientific and medical breakthroughs, and it’s already being used in numerous ways to treat cancer and genetic diseases.

Kaitlyn Morgan: I am currently in genetics [class] right now and am learning about CRISPR.  It really excited me after learning that these two women were the pioneers of developing the CRISPR model to influence new technological advances in treating disease by altering the genome.

TP: What was your initial reaction when you found out that Charpentier and Doudna had won this prize?

HW: I was thrilled to see this.  I love that it was a team of women, working collaboratively, in different countries (Emmanuelle Charpentier was working in Europe, predominantly in Germany and Jennifer Doudna in the U.S.). They shared ideas, their new findings, and even their researchers.  It appears (from the outside) to be very collaborative and productive. I love that they both are biochemists. There is so much to learn when one pairs the chemistry and behavior of molecules in isolation and then applies that knowledge into increasingly complex biological models

OO: My initial reaction to finding out that a duo of women won the Nobel prize was excitement. There are so few women in the biochemical engineering field that it’s so cool to have successful women in the field to look up to.

KM: My initial reaction when finding out that these two women won the Nobel prize in chemistry really motivated me. It reminded me that I am capable and smart enough to pursue a degree in science. 

TP: What is your experience in either learning or interacting with CRISPR/genome-editing software?

HW: In collaboration with Dr. Dorrell (biology) and Dr. Jansma (chemistry) we have been working on mutating a gene thought to play a role in cervical cancer. Dr. Jansma has analyzed the E7 oncoprotein from the human papillomavirus. She has been able to determine altered chemical characteristics of E7 based upon some minor changes in the gene (and thus the protein).  Using site directed mutagenesis, we are generating these same variants from Dr. Jansma’s studies and introducing them into a biologically relevant system to determine if the chemistry can explain the biology. This project thus far has not utilized CRISPR technology. However, we certainly could utilize this technology in the future; especially if we wanted to move into an animal model system.

TP: Are there any female chemists or scientists who are role models for you?

OO: Growing up, I always loved Marie Curie because she was a brilliant chemist even when there were no other women in her field. With these recent advancements in CRISPR, it’s going to be exciting that young girls are going to have more female role models to look up to. 

KM: Honestly, the two women [Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier] are my role models. The scientific advancement of genome editing that these two women discovered I believe is going to impact the science world by ultimately changing the way doctors treat patients. Overall, these two women have reminded me to keep on working hard and staying focused on my path to pursuing my degree because anything is possible.

Jennifer A. Dounda said in an article from Omniscience, “One of the problems in the biotech world is the lack of women in leadership roles, and I’d like to see that change by walking the walk.” 

You can learn more about these women and this year’s Nobel Prize award ceremony through the official Nobel Prize YouTube channel.

Written By: Elaine Alfaro