From 1988 to 2015 – how Jennifer Doudna shaped my career (and now science and society)

Well, yesterday was really fun.

In college, I switched from being an East Asian Studies major to being a Biology major in my sophomore year but had no idea what aspect of biology I might focus on.

Then I took a course that changed my life. The course was taught by a PhD student at Harvard and it was a kind of supervised reading class. The course was a full year class with weekly meetings to discuss various papers and news stories and such.  The topic was “The Origin of Life: Catalysis in Evolution” and it covered things like chemical evolution, catalytic RNA, the RNA world, introns, Lamarck vs. Darwin, and more.   The course syllabus is posted below:

This course changed my life in multiple ways.

First, in the course I learned how to critically read scientific papers. A very important skill. And also I got introduced to the world of catalytic RNA and also the world of “Cairnsian Mutation” which became the topic of my grad. school applications, my NSF predoctoral fellowship application, and the first two years of my PhD work. And I also got introduced to the work of Norm Pace.

This led me to seek out ways to combine my interest in ecology and evolution with molecular biology, which in turn led me to joining the lab of Colleen Cavanaugh and starting work on culture independent DNA studies of microbes.

Anyway, I could go on and on. But this course was transformative. Over the years I had heard about the student who had taught the course and her work, but had not actually seen her in person until yesterday.

The course instructor was Jennifer Doudna. And yesterday I got to see her talk about her work on CRIPSR and CAS9 systems. She has already won a large number of prizes for her work on this, and likely more to come. I cannot say I am surprised. Though I had many teachers at Harvard who were famous, and some of whom were also great teachers and researchers, I can say without a doubt that the one who impressed me most was Doudna. Her passion for science, for biology, for teaching, for being critical while reading articles, and for just wild things that organisms do, was contagious. So cool to see what she is doing now.

Anyway – I made a Storify of the Tweets (mostly mine) from her talk. Check them out below:

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

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