Hilo Highschool Alumni With Ties to UH Hilo

Wins the Nobel Prize

Illustration of gene cutting

Writer: Kasumi Collins, Editor-in-Chief
Graphic Designer: Naomi Lemieux
Photo Courtesy of: UC Berkeley Photo Courtesy by Stephen McNally

Hilo’s very own Jennifer Doudna has won the Nobel Prize for the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. Doudna’s father was an English professor at UH Hilo and her mother taught history at the Hawai‘i Community College.

Most of her childhood was spent bouncing between the schools in Hilo, she told Ke Kalahea. Her family moved to Hilo in 1971, where she remained until she left for Pomona College in California after graduating from Hilo High School in 1981.

“Living in Hilo shaped me in so many ways,” Doudna said. “It’s where I first fell in love with science. You can’t go anywhere in Hawaiʻi without being amazed by the variety of life.”

She first heard the word “biochemistry” in Hilo when a visitor from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came to give a lecture on her research about cancer cells. “You didn’t see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes. I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does.”

“I come back to visit as often as I can, and I’m sad that this year has made it so hard to travel,” Doudna added. She came to Hilo last year to speak at UH Hilo’s women in STEM conference Doudna says that she is extremely proud to be one of the few women in STEM to have been awarded the Nobel Prize. “It’s so common for women to think that our work will never be recognized the way it might be for men,” she said. It’s her hope that this award can show young women that “there is a bright future in science for them if they want.”

“You don’t have to be someone else, act or look a certain way, you just have to pursue what interests you and know that you belong there.” Clara Scheidle, a 2020 UH Hilo astronomy graduate, who worked on the STEM conference Doudna spoke at last year, noted how special it really is that one of Hilo’s very own has received such accolades in the scientific community.

“I can’t stress enough how important it is for women and especially young girls to see successful women being recognized and awarded for their work,” Schiedle said. “It gives us something to aspire to, and the motivation to keep pressing through, especially in a male dominated field. It’s about time that this happened, and I hope it sets a positive precedent for the future.”

Doudna was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Emmanuelle Chapentier, who published her discovery the same year she initiated a collaboration with Doudna, according to the official website of the Nobel Prize. The work that Doudna has been awarded for is used for CRISPR, a tool that allows researchers to edit DNA — “the code of life,” as Doudna puts it. “It is essentially a bacterial immune system that has the ability to find viral DNA and chop it up as a way of defending the bacteria.” They have found that there are a lot of versions of CRISPR systems found in nature, however the one they first studied is called CRISPR-Cas9. “In our work, we found a way to use this bacterial technology in a programmable way to edit DNA, the code of life,” she said. “Think of it like ‘Find and Replace’ in a word processor. We can tell CRISPR-Cas9 to search for a specific sequence of DNA, cut it out, and then replace it with a repaired or modified sequence.”

Doudna told Ke Kalahea that her lab is continuing to work on CRISPR genome editing and that there is still much to learn. She shared that one of her biggest challenges is delivering CRISPR-based therapeutics to different types of cells in the body. “There is so much promise for treating genetic diseases of all types, but to do that we have to be able to get the genome editing proteins into the right cells. There has been a lot of progress in just a short period of time, and I’m excited to keep pushing the technology forward and make it accessible to everyone who can benefit from it.”

Jennifer Doudna posing with a CRISPR model.Jennifer Doudna posing with a CRISPR model

While she is unable to speak directly to the UH Hilo collegiate scientists this year, she offered some inspiring words:

“Follow your curiosity. I never set out to win a Nobel Prize, or any prize at all. I just kept asking basic questions and finding new ways to answer them and one thing led to another. Also, surround yourself with people that will support you on your journey. Awards only recognize one or a few people, but truly great science is done as a community.”