Scientist who graduated from Hilo High wins 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Updated: Oct. 7, 2020 at 12:11 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - An American biochemist who grew up in Hilo and graduated from Hilo High School is one of the co-recipients of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Jennifer Doudna, a professor at UC Berkeley, is best known for her work in genome editing, particularly with regard to the CRISPR-Cas system. French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Germany, is the other co-recipient of the 2020 award.

The discoveries made by Doudna and Charpentier have been called revolutionary, perhaps described best in a recent op-ed by the New York Times as a way to ‘turn the curiosity of nature into an invention that will transform the human race: an easy-to-use tool than can edit DNA.’

Scientists say CRISPR allows for the rewriting of DNA by cutting very precise portions of those strands at the molecular level and inserting new chunks of DNA into living organisms, which may one day change how mankind treats diseases.

Earlier this year, for example, researchers in Oregon said they had used the gene editing tool inside someone’s body for the first time in an attempt to cure blindness.

“What started as a curiosity‐driven, fundamental discovery project has now become the breakthrough strategy used by countless researchers working to help improve the human condition," Doudna said, in a statement released Wednesday by UC Berkeley. "I encourage continued support of fundamental science as well as public discourse about the ethical uses and responsible regulation of CRISPR technology.”

The Nobel announcement was groundbreaking in more ways than one: UC Berkeley officials say Doudna and Charpentier are the first women to win a Nobel Price in the sciences together.

“That means a lot to me personally, because I know that, when I was growing up, I couldn’t, in a million years, have ever imagined this moment,” Doudna said.

Doudna has frequently discussed her roots on Hawaii Island, calling herself ‘a Hilo girl’ and saying that much of her path to becoming a scientist in the first place ‘has to do with my experience growing up in Hilo.’

She graduated from Hilo High School in 1981, her father was an English professor at the UH Hilo, and she had plenty of chances to work in the school’s biology lab during her adolescence.

“I absolutely couldn’t wait to get up in the morning to get to the lab, because I really wanted to do the next experiment,” Doudna said in a lecture at the UH Hilo campus back in 2018.

Nobel Prize laureates receive a $1 million prize, but Doudna joked Wednesday that it may not be the most valuable prize.

“Thank you for that parking space! After 18 years, I can finally park on campus. I am really delighted about that,” Doudna said in a press conference after winning the prize, referring to the Berkeley tradition of awarding Nobel laureates with lifetime parking spaces on campus,

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