Tang Prize laureate urges young Taiwanese to follow their hearts

  • American geneticist Jennifer Doudna, one of this year's three recipients of the Tang Prize in biopharmaceutical science, encouraged young Taiwanese to pursue a career in the area they are passionate about.
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Taipei, Sept. 22 (CNA) American geneticist Jennifer Doudna, one of this year's three recipients of the Tang Prize in biopharmaceutical science, encouraged young Taiwanese to pursue a career in the area they are passionate about, during a speech to hundreds of high school students Thursday.

Citing her own experience, Doudna said she came from a small town in Hawaii and that no one in her family was a scientist. This background made it seem unlikely for her to be able to do what she is doing, she said.

At around age 12, her father gave her a book written by James Watson, an American molecular biologist and one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA in the 1950s, Doudna said. Her chemistry teacher in high school also triggered her interest in science, she added.

The teacher taught her that "science is about solving puzzles," which she is passionate about, Doudna told the students.

At the time, people often told her that "girls can't do science," but that did not stop her from pursuing her interest in scientific research, said Doudna.

"I really, really wanna do it. I just never let anyone tell me that I couldn't do it," she said, describing herself as "a stubborn person."

Doudna, 52, is now a professor of chemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

She is in Taiwan to attend the Tang Prize award ceremony which will be held on Sept. 25 in Taipei.

She was speaking to the students during a question-and-answer session.

Despite Doudna's determination, however, it was not all smooth sailing during her path to becoming a scientist.

She recalled that when she was studying for her bachelor's degree at Pomona College, she found herself struggling with her general chemistry class at one point and she began having doubts about her own ability and desire to continue on a science track.

With the encouragement of one of her teachers, Doudna persisted and eventually developed a passion for working in research labs, she said.

"When I had doubts, I was always grateful and fortunate that I had people in my life that would tell me: yes you can do it," she said.

She encouraged the young students to follow their hearts.

"I encourage you to figure out what you're passionate about doing," she said. "Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it, because you can."

Sharing her own experience, she also said that picking the right life partner was also important to achieve success. The mother of a 13-year-old son expressed gratitude for all the support she received from her husband, also a scientist and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Doudna also talked about the new technology for gene-editing, called CRISPR-Cas9, which enables scientists to remove or add genetic material to one's DNA.

Doudna won the 2016 Tang Prize in biopharmaceutical science, along with two other people, for "the development of CRISPR-Cas9 as a breakthrough genome editing platform that promises to revolutionize biomedical research and disease treatment."

CRISPR stands for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats." Part of the CRISPR system is a protein called Cas-9, which is able to seek out, cut and eventually degrade viral DNA in a specific way, according to Doudna.

It can be used to make precise changes to the DNA sequence in cells, she said.

The technique could help cure genetic diseases such as sickle cell anemia and muscular dystrophy by correcting the sequence of DNA that would otherwise cause such diseases, said Doudna, also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The use of CRISPR technology in treating diseases in the blood will likely be the first type of clinical application of the technology, she told about 300 students from five high schools in Taipei: Taipei First Girls High School, Taipei Municipal Zhongshan Girls High School, Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School, Taipei Municipal Chenggong High School and the Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University.

Doudna will give a series of talks, organized by the Tang Prize Foundation, while she is in Taiwan.