Hilo native wins coveted Nobel Prize for gene editing tool

As a teenager at Hilo High, Nobel winner Jennifer Doudna’s interest in science led to an opportunity to work in a UH Hilo lab run by now-Emeritus Professor of Biology Don Hemmes. Doudna credits Hemmes with inspiring her curiosity about the living world. The rest is history.

Jennifer Doudna speaks at podium.
Jennifer Doudna delivers a lecture about CRISPR-Cas9 technology, Sept. 2018, at UH Hilo. The lecture was part of the Rose and Raymond Tseng Distinguished Lecture Series. Photo by Bob Douglas/UH Hilo Stories.

A world-renowned biochemist who connects part of her early fascination with science to time spent in a University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo biology lab captured the prestigious Nobel Prize in Chemistry. University of California, Berkeley chemistry and molecular and cell biology Professor Jennifer Doudna, a Hilo native, won the award for her work in developing genome editing technology that enables scientists to edit the DNA of plants and animals.

Doudna and her colleagues created the technique called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats)-Cas9 which is now being used as a cancer therapy.

Doudna’s roots firmly cling to Hawaiʻi Island. The Hilo High School graduate’s mother Dorothy taught at Hawaiʻi Community College, her father Martin was an English professor at UH Hilo. She credits him for encouraging her curiosity in science. As a teenager, that interest led to an opportunity to work in a UH Hilo lab. Doudna credits now-Emeritus Professor of Biology Don Hemmes with inspiring her curiosity about the living world by giving her a chance to work in his lab on campus. Hemmes is an internationally known expert in fungi, notably mushrooms.

In 2018, the connection to the university returned full circle when the pioneer in genome editing was invited to present her work at UH Hilo as part of the Rose and Raymond Tseng Distinguished Lecture Series. Rose Tseng served as chancellor of UH Hilo from 1998 to 2010.

Marcia Sakai, Jennifer Doudna and Rose Tseng sit at table in restaurant.
In Sept. 2018, (from left) UH Hilo Interim Chancellor Marcia Sakai hosts Professor Jennifer Doudna and UH Hilo Chancellor Emerita Rose Tseng for a private dinner at Hilo landmark Ken’s House of Pancakes following Doudna’s lecture at UH Hilo. Photo by Bob Douglas/UH Hilo Stories.

Considered a rock star in the world of modern science, Rolling Stone has included her in its Women Shaping the Future issue, saying she helped make a discovery “that could change life on Earth.” Doudna’s also been named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.

Doudna’s shares the Nobel Prize with colleague and fellow researcher Emmanuelle Charpentier, a French microbiologist.

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