The Next Generation of Female Scientists: The Nobel Laureates of 2020

WRITTEN BY ANNA DIVINAGRACIA
EDITED BY HANNAH MANUEL
GRAPHICS BY SANYA CHAWLA

2020 has been quite a ride. Back-to-back calamities, deaths, political controversies, and a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic wreaked havoc all over the world. True enough, the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a new era of social distancing and misinformation, of clinical breakthrough and compromise. It is with no doubt that the end of the last decade was unexpected and quite out of the ordinary.

One shining beacon of normalcy, however, was the awarding of the esteemed Nobel Prize. Since 1901, scientists, philanthropists, doctors, and authors alike have set their sights on the Nobel Prize, an award that symbolizes the pinnacle of one’s career. Albeit an unconventional awarding ceremony given the circumstances, the Nobel Prizes of 2020 were still bestowed upon “those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.” 

BOTTOM LINE UP FRONT!

  • Despite the year 2020 being the least auspicious of years, the historically male-dominated Nobel Prize in the Sciences had been awarded to three women in the fields of Physics and Chemistry.
  • Andrea Ghez, one of the two Laureates for Physics, was acknowledged with her discovery of Sagittarius A*, the Milky Way Galaxy’s very own supermassive black hole!
  • Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, both Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, were awarded for their development of the CRISPR-Cas9 system that allows for genetic modification.
  • For the year of 2020, the women of science transcended the difficulty of being in a male-dominated field, showing us that women can do more if we provide them with the opportunity to shine.

Just like anything else, the Nobel Prize is not complete without its faults. Being a woman in a man’s world has never been easy. With most career paths systematically dominated by the opposite sex, it is a necessity that women run twice as fast, work twice as hard, and brave twice as strong just to receive the same acclaim as their male counterparts. Thus, it comes as no surprise that even the most esteemed award on the face of the planet has been historically male-dominated. In its 119 years of existence, the Nobel Prize has only been awarded to 57 women; to put this into context, only 6% of the total 962 Nobel Laureates are female.

It is even greater of a feat then, that, in the least auspicious of years, the Nobel Prize in the Sciences had been awarded to three women in the fields of Physics and Chemistry. Their stories are of strength, determination, and hard work: the traits of the woman. As we usher in a new decade, let us tell the tales of these three pioneers in their fields — the women of 2020.

ANDREA GHEZ

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Andrea Ghez, the fourth woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics (Zukhova, 2020).

Nobody thought the experiment would work. Proving the existence of a massive black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy was a feat that no one would dare test, especially with the weight of shouldering immense risk. Yet, Andrea Ghez proved just that: a supermassive black hole with the mass of four million suns existed right in the middle of our galaxy. 

Her career in astronomy started with the stars. Using the technology of infrared speckle imaging, Andrea studied young binary stars, or pairs of stars in orbit around their common center of gravity. By taking a multitude of photos and piecing them together, the stars could easily be studied by her team. This beginning paved the way for her future: a fascination for something no one thought existed.

In 1995, Andrea’s exploration of our very own supermassive black hole began. Through the W.M. Keck Observatory’s twin telescopes in Mauna Kea, Hawai’i, her team began studying the stars near the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, with co-prizewinner Reinhard Genzel and his team conducting similar research in Chile. The equipment she asked for was definitely not designed to perform the utility she needed: an ultrafast readout of stars, restacked for a final result. The Near Infrared Camera was not built for such rapid technology, yet Andrea persisted, and not long after, the camera started working precisely in her favor.

Soon enough, evidence of stars orbiting the black hole was produced by the Near Infrared Camera. It was a clear signal, egging Andrea to proceed with her soon-to-be-fantastic research. Coincidentally, new technology, adaptive optics, was being developed, now able to generate more powerful images of galactic phenomena and objects. Through adaptive optics, the effect of incoming wavefront distortions is reduced, ultimately improving the performance of optical systems and the quality of the images produced. The switch to adaptive optics was without question for Andrea, and results improved even more from using the new technology.

After 25 years of persistence and perseverance, Andrea’s team was able to identify individual stars, following their orbits around the galactic center of the galaxy. Interestingly, more than 30,000 stars were found surrounding Sagittarius A*, our local supermassive black hole. Black holes, due to their high density, seem to pull everything into it without anything being able to escape. According to Andrea, the vast majority of galaxies seem to have black holes in the center.

Her team’s research truly paid off, and not long after, in July 2019, the journal Science published their research, known as the “most comprehensive test of Albert Einstein’s iconic general theory of relativity.” In fact, more than 100 years after Einstein’s incredible theory, Andrea’s team is starting to question its validity, saying that it “still stands, at least for now.” In 2019, Andrea stated that “Einstein’s theory is showing vulnerability; at some point, we will need to move beyond Einstein’s theory to a more comprehensive theory of gravity that explains what a black hole is.”

It’s not a surprise that someone so passionate about her research actively engages in inspiring others to be just as driven. Andrea, currently the executive director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group, brings together research and technological development through her team of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, all similarly fascinated by their research. According to her, the triumph of their phenomenal research is thanks to cutting-edge technology, her colleagues, and their combined efforts. 

Still remaining humble even after her great feat that is the Nobel Prize in Physics, Andrea says that “the Nobel Prize is fabulous, but we still have a lot to learn.” Two months after their publication in Science, her research group found that Sagittarius A* is having an unusually large meal of interstellar gas and dust that the team cannot explain. This only shows that Andrea’s fascination for the galaxy surely does not end with her Nobel Prize in Physics; it has only just begun.

EMMANUELLE CHARPENTIER

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Emmanuelle Charpentier, one of the 2020 Nobel Laureates for Chemistry (Hallbauer & Fioretti, n.d.).

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could find the secret to changing life as it is right now? The notion that you could simply edit an organism’s genome, just like you can edit a Google Document, was so fantastic that Emmanuelle Charpentier’s life changed the moment she deciphered the secret.

For the past 20 years, Emmanuelle has been hopping from place to place (universities to laboratories, rather), her own style of keeping up with the ever-developing science. According to her peers, Emmanuelle is “so resourceful, she could start a lab on a desert island,” a real practitioner of leaving different places to go out of your comfort zone — the best place to improve yourself and your work.

Contrary to other scientists, the idea of being a biologist wasn’t quite defined by Emmanuelle until later. According to her mother, when she was young, Emmanuelle once announced that she would work at the Pasteur Institute. Incidentally, Emmanuelle stayed true to her word and completed her doctorate at the Pasteur Institute. Here, she studied segments of moving bacterial DNA in the genome that transfer drug resistance between cells.

Her story only continues from there. Emmanuelle embarked on several researcher positions anywhere she went, from New York to Berlin, and in 2002, as a researcher in the University of Vienna, she discovered a regulatory RNA molecule in Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria that controls virulence factors. Through further research in the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, she identified small novel RNAs in the bacteria’s genome, where she found the bacteria to use the CRISPR system as part of its defense against viruses. The system consists of only three components: tracrRNA, CRISPR RNA, and Cas9 protein. The system was far simpler than she anticipated, but its discovery would lead to the development of one of the most famous and life-changing technologies in the world.

Graphics by Sanya Chawla

The investigation of the CRISPR system continued for Emmanuelle in Sweden. She presented her breakthrough: that the CRISPR system could cut and modify DNA at specific locations in the genome by the tracrRNA and CRISPR RNA guiding the Cas9 protein. With her team, she presented the findings in 2010, and the next chapter is history.

Emmanuelle’s group in Sweden collaborated with her co-prizewinner for Chemistry, Jennifer Doudna, and her group in California to combine the tracrRNA and CRISPR RNA into one molecule to simplify the application of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology. To date, all the team’s experiments involving plant, animal, and human cells have been successful, with the potential for a multitude of applications in medicine and science.

Emmanuelle’s fascination for CRISPR led her to co-found CRISPR Therapeutics, employing the technology in gene therapy in humans. The cells would be removed from patients and would be treated with the CRISPR-Cas9 technology, to be inserted back again.

The CRISPR-Cas9 system has the world on its toes, game-changing yet terrifying if used for the wrong reasons. Ethical questions have risen, to which Emmanuelle gives her word that the technology her team has developed will not be used to influence the natural process of life. She replies, “CRISPR-Cas9 can deliver huge benefits to humanity, but of course we need to handle it responsibly. Interventions into the human germline, for instance, which would influence the genome of future generations, are something that I and most of my colleagues refuse to do.” 

Even with the reservations held surrounding the technology, Emmanuelle is confident that it will be used for the greater good of the human race. She also remains humble, avoiding the limelight when she can. “Jean-Paul Sartre, the French philosopher, warned that winning prizes turned you into an institution — I am just trying to keep working and keep my feet on the ground,” says Emmanuelle, the current director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology. Since the discovery of CRISPR technology, she knew that the breakthrough could aid individuals with genetic diseases; this is what matters to her and what she promises to stick by.

JENNIFER DOUDNA

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Jennifer Doudna, one of the 2020 Nobel Laureates for Chemistry (Morton, 2020).

Emmanuelle Charpentier isn’t the only CRISPR technology expert among the Nobel Laureates of 2020. Starting with deciphering the basic structure and function of the first ribozyme, Jennifer Doudna quickly became a crucial aid in pioneering the famed CRISPR-Cas9 technology that continues to make headlines in science even until now..

They say that education starts where the home is. Sure enough, Jennifer’s interest in science was fostered by her parents, who both had a passion for astronomy, biology, and geology. She was even surrounded by the beauty of Hawai’i, and only a few years into her life, Jennifer was introduced to a biologist from whom she learned the thrill of scientific discovery. She started her first research project with two students under Don Hermes in the university; in only a few weeks, they managed to determine that calcium ions played an important role in the development of Phytophthora palmivora.

From there, she engaged herself in the field of biochemistry, and in 1985, she completed her bachelor’s degree in Chemistry. Her professors made a great impression on her — not only teaching her the beauty of science, but also discussing how to be a successful woman in the male-dominated scientific field. Jennifer also studied under Nobel Laureate Jack Szostak, where she focused on RNA and ribozymes.

Her striking breakthrough in the field of biochemistry started when she demonstrated that RNA was not only the mechanism for carrying instructions to synthesize proteins, but also its catalyst. This further revolutionized RNA research, allowing for more research on the structure and mechanisms of viral RNA in diseases.

Currently, Jennifer is identified by the scientific world as one of the experts of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology. After receiving a call from a colleague about some repetitive sequences in bacterial genomes, she immediately hopped on the task to decipher the mechanism of the sequences, known as CRISPR. She believed that this research could provide information on how small RNA molecules in human cells regulated genes and the pathways of RNA interference.

In 2011, Jennifer met Emmanuelle Charpentier, and both agreed to collaborate on the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology. Since then, Jennifer’s world has been circulating around the technology. CRISPR-Cas9 is easy to engineer, affordable, and precise; features that are definitely intriguing to the common individual. 

While tempting, Jennifer emphasizes the use of CRISPR for the better rather than for vanity and unsafe reasons. She is currently leading the debates on the issues of the use of the technology on human embryos. Although she called for a moratorium on the use of the CRISPR technology, she is sure that the technology would definitely be used for the better in the future. After all, science never really stops developing.

LEARNINGS FROM THE LAUREATES

For the year of 2020, the women of science transcended the difficulty of being in a male-dominated field, showing us that women can do more if we provide them with the opportunity to shine. Who knows what society could achieve if we allow women to stand alongside men? Who knows what the new decade can bring once we accept women on the stage of scientific knowledge? 

The Nobel Laureates of 2020 show us that women are just as capable as men, in the scientific field and anywhere else.

REFERENCES

Ekanayaka, S. (2020, October 15). The Nobel Prize winners – Meet the 4 women of 2020. MyScienceWork. https://www.mysciencework.com/omniscience/nobel-prize-meet-4-women-2020

Gregersen, E. (n.d.). Andrea Ghez. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Andrea-Ghez

Gregersen, E. (n.d.). Andrea Ghez. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Andrea-Ghez

Hallbauer & Fioretti (n.d.). [Emmanuelle Charpentier]. Retrieved February 14, 2021, from https://www.emmanuelle-charpentier-lab.org/photos/

Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. (2017, February 07). Emmanuelle Charpentier: An artist in gene editing. https://www.mpg.de/10729312/emmanuelle-charpentier

Morton, L. (2020). PIONEER Jennifer Doudna in the lobby of her fifth-floor lab at the Innovative Genomics Institute [Online photograph]. C&EN. https://cen.acs.org/biological-chemistry/gene-editing/A-day-with-Jennifer-Doudna-Trying-to-keep-up-with-one-of-the-world-most-sought-after-scientists/98/i9

Rogers, K. (n.d.). Emmanuelle Charpentier. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Emmanuelle-Charpentier

What is Biotechnology? (n.d.). Professor Jennifer Doudna. https://www.whatisbiotechnology.org/index.php/people/summary/Doudna

Wolpert, S. (2020, October 6). Andrea Ghez wins 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics. UCLA Newsroom. https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/andrea-ghez-wins-2020-nobel-prize-in-physics

Zhukova, E. (2020). Andrea Ghez is the eighth UCLA faculty member to be named a Nobel laureate [Online photograph]. UCLA Newsroom. https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/andrea-ghez-wins-2020-nobel-prize-in-physics

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