Strength in stubbornness: A 2020 Nobel winner reflects on her career

In this interview from National Geographic’s 2019 book “Women,” Jennifer Doudna discusses her award-winning work and says we must be ‘very open about the challenges that women face.’

Monday, October 12, 2020,
By National Geographic Staff
The biochemist’s research, with colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, led to the discovery of a revolutionary gene-editing technique ...

The biochemist’s research, with colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, led to the discovery of a revolutionary gene-editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas9. Today, Jennifer Doudna (above) promotes the ethical use of gene-altering technologies.

Photograph by Erika Larsen
Editor's note: The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier for the development of a method of genome editing. National Geographic editor in chief Susan Goldberg spoke with Doudna in 2019 for the book Women: The National Geographic Image Collection. The text has been edited for length and clarity.

When Jennifer Doudna was in the sixth grade, her father gave her a copy of The Double Helix by DNA pioneer James Watson, and she was hooked. As a biochemistry graduate at a small California college, Doudna says she was “sort of amazed” to be accepted for graduate studies at Harvard. There she contributed to pioneering research on RNA, a field that became her passion. Doudna spent years investigating an unusual molecular sequence—acronym, CRISPR—and how it functioned. In 2011 she and microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier joined forces in research; the next year, they published revolutionary findings on how CRISPR, combined with an enzyme, Cas9, can cut DNA strands with surgical precision. The result: a gene-editing technique that’s been called the most significant scientific breakthrough of the past century. Now a professor at UC Berkeley, Doudna continues her research and advocates for ethical standards in the use of gene-altering technologies.

(Related: DNA hacking tool enables shortcut to evolution.)

Let me just dive right in, and ask you: Do you consider your­self a feminist?

That’s a great ques­tion. I’d say that I’m a budding feminist, and I’ll tell you why. Earlier in my career, I was very, very keenly interested in not being seen as a “female scientist,” but just being viewed as a scientist, gender neutral—somebody who was professional and dedicated to what I was doing, but not given any particular advan­tages or disadvantages based on my gen­der. I think that’s how many people feel about being identified with a particular group: They want to be valued for who they are as a person, fundamentally, and what their contributions are, rather than being given some kind of special dispensation for things that were out of their control accord­ing to their birth.

So, that was true for me, probably through my 40s. But over the last decade or so, I’ve seen—up much closer to me—this kind of bias that happens. It’s mostly unintentional, but I do see bias against women. And that has made me much more aware of the impor­tance of being very open about the chal­lenges that women face, the ways that women are viewed in the national and inter­national media, and the way different cul­tures are portraying women, in their professional roles especially. We need to continue to discuss these issues and ensure that women feel welcome and enabled to contribute fully to society in whatever way they feel is important to them—whether it’s through being mothers, or being involved pro­fessionally, or some combination.

What do you think is the single most important change that needs to happen for women in the next 10 years?

Hmm, what would I say? There’s lots of cli­ché answers to that, like better child care or more access to equal pay for equal work. I think it really comes down to women feeling that they are welcome in all sectors of professional life—and that includes in business, in board­rooms, and in leadership roles in companies, as well as in academia, my line of work. There continues to be a need for women to be included at those highest levels of leadership, since right now we’re excluding a large fraction of people because they don’t feel enabled or they don’t feel welcomed to contribute. Among the women that I oversee as an aca­demic adviser at a large public university, I frequently see women who doubt their abili­ties. I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing, but I think women much more than men in general tend to doubt their abilities—whether it’s their ability to succeed in a course, or to be success­ful applying for a fellowship, for a job or a promotion, all the way up to the very highest levels of leadership in corporate America.

It’s so true. I had a young woman ask me the other day, “What do you do when you get imposter syndrome?” [This term, coined by psychologists in the 1970s, refers to people who doubt their talents or fear they are frauds, despite accomplishments proving otherwise.] I told her, well, I just try to plow through it, act confident, keep going. But you’d rarely have a man ask anything like that.

Exactly. So we have to change that somehow.

To switch gears a little bit: What historical figure do you identify most with?

Probably Dorothy Hodgkin [the British chemist who won the 1964 Nobel Prize in chemistry for her use of x-rays to determine the structure of penicillin and other important biochemicals]. I read a biography of her a few years ago and it really struck me how she had faced all sorts of challenges as a woman in her profession. She had a family, but to conduct her work she had to live for long periods of time apart from her children. Just imagine how challenging that would be, but how driven she was—to be the best and to really do her work at a high level, but also to be a responsible mother and spouse. It really affected me.

And what about a living person?

It might be Michelle Obama. I think she’s amazing from everything that I’ve seen and read about her. She is just the most dignified woman—incredibly smart, very accomplished professionally, seems to be a wonderful wife and mother. She embodies the classiness that I aspire to myself.

You’re the second person I’ve talked to who’s said that.

I’m not surprised.

Now, what is your own breakthrough moment?

If you’re asking about a moment that changed the trajectory of what I’ve done pro­fessionally as a scientist, the one that really stands out is during the time I was beginning graduate school at Harvard. I was from a small town in Hawaii, a public-school product, and I was sort of amazed to find myself at this grad­uate program at Harvard Medical School. There was a wonderful afternoon I was feeling not particularly self-confident about my abili­ties to succeed in this environment with a lot of very smart people around me, when my adviser, Nobel Laureate Jack Szostak, came up to me and wanted to get my opinion on an experiment. Can you imagine being a gradu­ate student and being asked by someone who seemed light-years away in achievements and ability asking for my opinion about an idea? It made me realise that my opinions were valued; he trusted me, so maybe I should trust myself.

What do you think is your greatest strength?

Oh, probably my stubbornness. I get an idea in my mind and I don’t want to give it up. It’s something that probably hurts me at times, but I think stubbornness is a quality that has allowed me to do a lot of the things that I have done in science.

So what are the biggest hurdles you had to overcome?

Just doubts that I’ve had at various times. Wondering, “Do I really have the ability to become a biochemist and be a successful scientist?” My definition of success was not success in terms of monetary reward or even professional recognition. It was more at the level of, “Can I actually do science that I’m going to be proud of? And can I feel like I’ve made the right choice with my life, that I decided to do something that I can actually do well?” There were a number of times when I was younger when I thought maybe the answer is no and maybe I’m on the wrong track. And again, my stubbornness came into play, because I’m also not a quitter. So I’d have voices in my head doubting what I was doing—but then I’d have contradictory voices saying, “But you’re not going to quit.” I’m stubbornly going to continue to do this because I think it’s the right thing to be doing. I think, at some level, we all face these doubts and have to figure out ways to overcome them.

What advice would you give to young women today?

First: walk into a room like you own the place. A man would do that without com­punction. The other thing I tell them is to choose your life partner wisely. Having a part­ner in life who is supportive of you—of deci­sions about children, about careers, about lifestyle—goes a long way in enabling women to achieve their full potential.

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