Professor, University of California, Berkeley; Executive Director, Innovative Genomics Institute, Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
And - Led the discovery of revolutionary gene-editing tool, CRISPR together with Emmanuelle Charpentier
Be curious. Observe the world around you.
What do you do?
I am a trained biochemist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. I work with other scientists to better understand the molecular world of DNA, RNA, and proteins.
Fairly recently, my lab discovered how to use a special protein that is able to target and specifically cut any DNA sequence in nearly any organism. Now I work with large teams of scientists across the country to use this protein as a way to treat genetic diseases, engineer sustainable agriculture, and develop other exciting applications!
Why did you choose this field?
I have been fascinated with biology since my early childhood. I grew up in Hawaii and enjoyed exploring the rich tapestry of plants, animals, and insects around the island. My father was a significant influence on my academic interest and aspirations. He was a professor at the local University and fostered a culture of intellectual pursuit in our home. When I was in the sixth grade, my father gave me a copy of The Double Helix. This book opened my eyes to the wonders of DNA and the many questions left to answer about genetics and the molecular world.
In addition to my father, my high school chemistry teacher, Miss Wong, helped transition chemistry from being a potentially intimidating topic, to being a field of wonder and fascination.
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
CRISPR proteins are naturally found in bacteria and help defend bacteria against viral infection. This process of how bacteria use CRISPR as an immune system had many questions surrounding it, so my lab was eager to explore these mysterious CRISPR proteins. After many months of experiments, we began to learn that one of the CRISPR proteins, called Cas9, could be used to cut DNA in a very precise way. If we had known this 5, 10, or even 20 years ago then modern medicine and agriculture would look very different than it does today.
Why do you love working in STEM?
One of the best things about working in STEM is its cross-disciplinary nature. I get to work with biologists, chemists, physicists, medical doctors, plant scientists, and many more! At UC Berkeley there is no shortage of extraordinary scholars who are eager to collaborate. These exciting collaborations are a great motivation for waking up each morning.
Best advice for next generation?
It's never too early to start asking questions. Ask “why?” and “how?” It is through developing this curiosity that you set yourself up for a successful journey in any STEM field.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
Some of my previous students have developed a CRISPR video game that helps brings some of my lab’s scientific discoveries to life. Visit: innovativegenomics.org/phage-invaders