Nobel Laureate Jennifer Doudna Gives Lecture to BHS Physics Club

Jennifer Doudna, Ph.D., an American biochemist, Nobel Prize winner, and pioneering researcher in CRISPR gene editing, gave a lecture with the Berkeley High School (BHS) Physics Club on April 28. Doudna discussed her work with the discovery and development of CRISPR, and her University of California (UC) Berkeley-based lab’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic. The event included a Q&A period and the announcement of the winners for the BHS Physics Club’s Science Fair.

One of the principal focuses of the lecture was Doudna’s lab’s work against COVID-19. She explained the work done to set up a testing facility on the UC Berkeley campus, saying, “We carved out a 1000 square foot space where we could put robots that would run a robotic [polymerase chain reaction] to detect SARS-CoV-2. … We set this up in about three weeks and started testing samples. Now we’ve tested well over a quarter of a million samples, we’ve done virtually all of the testing for the [UC Berkeley] campus over the last year, as well as working with a number of our community healthcare partners.” 

Doudna also discussed how a variant of CRISPR technology can be used to combat the current pandemic and future ones through identification. “And [there] are proteins that, in the case of Cas13, have the ability to directly recognize RNA molecules … but they still use an RNA-guided mechanism. … That matters [because] CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, [is] an RNA virus. So the nice thing about this kind of detection is that it’s direct; we don’t have to go through the polymerase chain reaction, which involves making a DNA copy of that virus RNA; we can just detect the virus RNA directly.” In other words, using a CRISPR-based method allows for a quicker, more direct, and cheaper process for COVID-19 testing.

During the Q&A section, Doudna was asked about how her life has changed from the attention she has received, and the importance of her work with CRISPR technologies. She responded, “I realize that, at some level, I’ve become kind of an ambassador for science. [I’m] in a position where I can speak to the importance of supporting science, the importance of ethical thinking in science, all of those kinds of broader questions that I’m now involved in. … It’s not something that I could ever have anticipated for my career, but I’m honored to be in that position.” Doudna also noted that while she appreciates this change in her career, she finds that working with CRISPR on a public level leaves her less time to enjoy research and experimentation.

The event ended with an announcement of the science fair winners, presented by Doudna. In third place was “Hydrocolloid Based Non-Invasive External Stitches” by Simren Parikh. In second, Neha Mandava and Shloka Raghavan’s “Utilizing NIR Spectroscopy To Develop An Inexpensive and Non-Invasive Real-Time Glucometer For Diabetic Patients.” First place went to William Huang, for his project, “Enhancing the Bionic Eye: A Real-Time Image Optimization Framework to Encode Color and Spatial Information into Retinal Prostheses.” Doudna ended the event by saying, “Really extraordinary projects. I can’t imagine having done anything like that when I was at your stage. Really cool science that you’re doing.”

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