In 1987, 23-year-old Jennifer Doudna was walking through the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory when she spotted a slightly stooped woman walking towards her. She recognized Barbara McClintock, who had recently had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her discovery of transposons, or “jumping genes,” that can change position in a genome. Doudna didn’t stop to introduce herself. “Here’s this woman who is so famous and so incredibly influential in science acting so unassuming and walking toward her lab thinking about her next experiment. She was what I wanted to be.”
I came across this anecdote last week reading The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race (Simon & Schuster, 2021), by Walter Isaacson. A former Time editor, Isaacson is author of best-selling biographies of Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein. Now Doudna, too, had won Nobel Prize in Chemistry, with Emmanuelle Charpentier, for having discovered the gene-editing tool known as CRISPR. I thought to myself that McClintock represented what I wanted to be, too, walking to the office, thinking about the weekly I intended to write. But I had been reading and working on other things all week, I hadn’t finished the Isaacson book, and I hadn’t settled on what I wanted to write. The book is fascinating. Back next week with something to say.