Honorary doctorate recipient Jennifer Doudna talks about learning to drive, ditches and research

Jennifer Doudna, biochemist and leading genomics researcher, received an honorary doctor of science degree from York University during spring convocation ceremonies for graduates of the Faculty of Science on Thursday, June 20.

Doudna is the Li Ka Shing Chancellor’s Chair and a professor in the departments of Chemistry and Molecular & Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Jennifer Doudna addresses convocation
Jennifer Doudna delivers her convocation address to graduands of the Faculty of Science

Her co-discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 genetic engineering technology with French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier has changed human and agricultural genomics research forever. This genome-editing technology enables scientists to change or remove genes quickly, with a precision only dreamed of just a few years ago.

In an engaging convocation address, Doudna spoke to graduands of the Faculty of Science about the shared synergies that learning to drive and the unexpected ditch share with earning a degree and discovery in research.

“An American friend once said to me that getting a college or even a graduate degree is like receiving a driver’s license – it’s the gateway to the many opportunities that become available to each of us once we have the combination of knowledge, skills and confidence that come with a great education,” said Doudna. “My friend’s comment reminded me of an experience that I had before any of my own commencements, back when I was 16 years old and living with my family in Hilo, Hawaii. I was excited to turn 16 because I could get my learner’s permit to begin driving lessons, and Dad agreed to take me out on the weekend in the family car to start my driver’s education.”

Sitting behind the wheel of her family’s 15-year-old car that was equipped with a manual transmission, Doudna and her father set out on her first driving lesson. After about an hour of driving on flat roads, her father directed her to navigate a more challenging stretch of road. “Dad directed me around a corner, up a hill towards a dead end that required a sharp left turn to head down the hill to the other side. But as I was navigating that turn, trying to downshift the transmission and ease out the clutch and turn the steering wheel all at the same time, I failed to slow down sufficiently and ended up driving the car into a ditch, with the front end pointed down into the underbrush. Fortunately we were unhurt, but I was mortified!” she said with a wry smile.

The car was fine. Her pride and self-confidence were not so fine. Her father insisted she take the wheel again and drive home. “Reluctantly I did,” she said, “and we made it home safely. And in the process, I began to see a path forward to learning the skills I would need to become a safe and competent driver, including trusting myself, acknowledging shortcomings while focusing on ways to improve and grow.”

She learned the importance of picking herself up after a letdown, getting back to the task at hand and persisting even in the face of disappointment and discouragement. “He showed me that success requires facing rather than running away from failure,” said Doudna. “He taught me about the importance of perseverance in the face of challenges, and about the value of working through problems to achieve a goal, of not quitting in the face of adversity.”

Those lessons have played out over and over again throughout the course of her career and her path to the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic engineering technology. Labs worldwide have changed the course of their research programs to incorporate this new tool, creating a CRISPR revolution with huge implications across biology and medicine.

Doudna with the chancellor and president
From left: Chancellor Greg Sorbara, Jennifer Doudna and York President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton

In addition to her scientific achievements and eminence, Doudna is also a leader in public discussion of the ethical and other implications of genome editing for human biology and societies, and advocates for thoughtful approaches to the development of policies around the use of CRISPR-Cas9. She has received many prizes for her discoveries, including the Japan Prize (2016) and the Kavli Prize (2018), and in 2015 was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

In closing, the message regarding new discoveries and the challenges associated to making them contained in her story was clear to graduands. “Know that there will be challenges and perhaps the odd ‘ditch’ to climb out of, but that you can get back in the driver’s seat and move forward.”