Inspiring Thursday: Jennifer Doudna & Emmanuelle Charpentier

The first Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded in 1901, 119 years after, and for the first time in its history, two women won without having to share the prize with a man. This win is understood as a breaking point for women in science as they were always the second in the innovation and discoveries. Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier are undoubtedly women who changed the face of science.

Jennifer Doudna was born in the USA and since her early childhood, she was fascinated by chemistry, DNA, and RNA. She studied biochemistry at Pomona College in California and completed her doctoral studies at Harward University. She contributed to research on RNA and focused on an unusual molecular sequence—acronym CRISPR. Since 2002 she has served as a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkley.

Emmanuelle Charpentier was born in France. She graduated from biochemistry, microbiology, and genetics at the Pierre and Marie Curie University, today the Faculty of Science of Sorbonne University, in Paris and soon after became a university teaching assistant there. After that, she became a postdoctoral fellow at Rockefeller University in New York. In 2011, she discovered and published research about how a molecule disarms viruses by snipping off parts of their DNA.

Following this, Charpentier joined forces with Doudna and developed the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic scissors. This groundbreaking technology can rewrite DNA in cells, create new medicines, enable treatment of diseases such as sickle cell anemia, muscular dystrophy, and is additionally used to make engineered immune cells known as CAR-T cells which are thought to be better at attacking tumors than regular immune cells. Although CRISPR-Cas9 scissors are widely beneficial, Doudna and Charpentier are concerned about the use of scissors in the editing of human DNA. Doudna immediately laid out a framework for actions to safeguard the genomes of human embryos against modification. Despite their efforts, in 2015 Chinese scientists reported having altered human embryo genomes via CRISPR-Cas9.

CRISPR-Cas9 became one of the most influential discoveries in the 21st century and Doudna and Charpentier received numerous awards such as Gruber Prize in Genetics, the Canada Gairdner International Award, and in 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry as the first all-woman team and sixth and seventh women in history.

This win attracted a lot of attention to women in science and hopefully as they said: “It will provide a positive message to the young girls who would like to follow the path of science, and to show them that women in science can also have an impact through the research that they are performing.” Because also women can find great discoveries and it is fundamental to create a society where women will be encouraged to observe the path of science as it is independent of gender.

Written by WAVE Intern Mária Trubanová