Jennifer Doudna, New Nobel Laureate, on Science and Covid

Good morning.

Last week, Nobel Prize season arrived.

Among the several winners with ties to California were two Stanford professors — Paul R. Milgrom and Robert B. Wilson, were awarded the Nobel in economic science — and three University of California scholars. Reinhard Genzel, a U.C. Berkeley professor emeritus of physics and astronomy, and Andrea Ghez, a U.C.L.A. professor of astrophysics, shared the prize in physics with a mathematician at Oxford University for their work on black holes.

And Jennifer Doudna, a U.C. Berkeley professor, shared the prize in chemistry with Emmanuelle Charpentier, now the director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, for their work on Crispr-Cas9, a method to edit DNA.

[See the full list of 2020 Nobel winners and read more coverage here.]

It’s the first time the award has gone to two women, and Dr. Doudna is the first woman to win a Nobel Prize while she is still on the U.C. Berkeley faculty.

That role has kept her plugged into campus life in ways that have been both challenging and exciting in the pandemic, Dr. Doudna told me on Thursday. Her lab, for instance, rushed to start doing coronavirus testing back in March.

I asked her about how her work has shifted in the Covid era and about the role of science in 2020.

Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and condensed:

First of all, congratulations! How are you feeling?

I’m in total shock and I don’t feel like I really have had even a minute to think about it. There’s just so many things going on.

The thing I’m really grateful for is I had a chance to go to my lab yesterday. They had thrown together an impromptu party. We were all socially distanced and had our masks on and everything, but we hadn’t really been together like that as a lab in eight months.

I’m sure you’ve been asked variations of this so many times, but can you explain in as simple of terms as possible what you won for?

Well, I guess the simplest way to say that is that it’s for a technology for gene editing, which means, as I think the Nobel committee even worded it this way, changing the code of life. So it’s a way to alter DNA with precision and accuracy in cells to control cells’ fate. And even the properties of an entire organism.

It puts into science’s hands just extraordinary power to manipulate genes in ways that could lead to cures for genetic disease, to altering crops, to being able to deal with climate change. And then, of course, there are all of the kinds of research questions that require genetic manipulation.

[Read a review of “Editing Humanity,” a new book about the history of Crispr.]

It’s been almost 10 years since you started this work, which obviously presents some important ethical questions. And the world has changed so much in that time. Can you tell me a bit about how you think about ethics in science and whether that’s shifted?

Ethics has come to the front and center for me, because of the potential for genome editing to be used for really profound things, like changing the human genome in embryos for heritable changes in humans.

[Read about the uproar over the work of He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist who claimed to have created the world’s first genetically edited babies.]

So I’ve been increasingly involved in international discussions around this, going back five years — really trying to encourage transparency and just basic education about how the technology works.

I don’t know quite how to answer your question about change. Certainly the pace of science feels faster and faster and faster. And I think all of us are accessing information much more easily and quickly than we used to.

Preprints are now becoming in many ways the standard form of scientific communication. All of that has changed the way scientific information is assimilated and used to plan the next experiment.

In many ways that’s been really good. But it also means that there’s less time to reflect on, “What do we do next? What’s the right thing to do? How do we make sure it’s done properly?” There’s more of a — and I feel it — a race forward.

Do you think there’s a way of — and this is an oversimplification — putting the genie back in the bottle or slowing things down?

In a word: No. (Laughs.)

If not the pace, then is there anything you would change about the way science is seen and understood in the world today?

I’d love to see science become more integrated into our daily conversations. It seems that in the past, at least in certain societies, science was much more integrated.

And I would love to see us work toward that. We could be using different forms of media, whether it’s in cartoons or short videos, and more conversational use of language that isn’t exclusive — not using jargon.

One of the things that I’ve seen in my career is that there’s been an unfortunate change in the opposite direction where scientists are increasingly distrusted.

We see this news now, even during the pandemic. It’s quite frightening. I think we want to work backward.

It’s partly scientists’ fault. We need to be better at talking about our work in ways that are relatable by non-specialists.

I know that your lab pretty quickly started doing coronavirus testing. How has that been going? And how has the pandemic shaped the work that you’ve done over the last several months?

Like many people, for us, back in March, we were realizing that this was a real health emergency, and then asking ourselves as scientists, “What could we be doing to address this?”

One of the things that was really obvious, even then, was that we need to do more testing.

It seemed like something that we certainly had the technology and the know-how to do. Very quickly, at Berkeley, we set up a clinical testing lab in our Innovative Genomics Institute and started running tests with, initially, nasal swabs.

We’re doing both saliva and blood tests and working to serve primarily underserved populations.

We also are working on the California Energy Commission, testing their employees. That was really gratifying work. Over the summer, that was our primary focus.

As the fall approached, it was clear that we would need to be helping the campus, as students started to arrive back. We knew that was a big motivator for getting our saliva tests going. Now, we’re serving students and the surrounding community with these tests.

[Track Covid cases at U.S. colleges.]

How many tests are you processing a day?

Anywhere from one to two thousand a day. And we’re actually going to be probably roughly quadrupling that, because we’re moving to a pooled testing format.

How are you looking at the next couple of months? What questions do you want to answer and what capabilities are you hoping to build?

Honestly, since we’ve worked our way through a lot of the technical aspects, now what we’re doing is more — I don’t know — I’d call it sociology or psychology.

It’s working with the student population to figure out how to bring them in to do very regular testing twice a week.

We’re working right now, for example, with the fraternities. We’re quite pleased that they actually reached out to us and said, “We know we need to get tested, and how can you help us do it?” We’re coming up with some different ways to really invite those students in so that it doesn’t feel like a punitive thing.

The other thing that we’re doing in the testing lab — and this gets us back to Crispr — is that Crispr-based diagnostics that are coming down the pike, and we’re gearing up our testing lab to start to be kind of a beta testing site for this new Crispr test, which we’re going to start running in November.

What’s the advantage of that?

We think it could be faster and higher throughput. The other big advantage is that it has a completely different supply chain.

I know you’ve got to go, but if I could synthesize some of what I’m hearing from you about the idea of making science more part of everyday life and ask how it feels to be in the thick of things, working with the campus community in a very direct way?

It’s just incredibly gratifying. And honestly, I have seen this from many of our students, postdocs, technicians, et cetera, who willingly and eagerly volunteered their time early on to get this testing lab going and who put in the many, many, many, many hours it took to turn it into a really professional operation.

Without exception, they’ve all said, “We feel in a way honored to be able to do this, to have the expertise that can be useful in this time of great need.”

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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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