Jennifer Doudna wins
new Mildred Cohn award

Maggie Wear
By Maggie Wear
March 25, 2013

Jennifer A. Doudna is the inaugural recipient of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Mildred Cohn Award in Biological Chemistry. Doudna has been described by those who nominated her for the award as “an outstanding scientist,” “a unique scholar,” “an exceptionally creative and productive scientist,” “a great speaker” and “an accomplished educator.”

Jennifer Doudna
“I am thrilled and honored to receive this award that in turn honors the great scientist Mildred Cohn. Dr. Cohn’s outstanding legacy epitomizes the values I hold most dear in science and that I seek to communicate to students: scholarship, passion for discovery and a continuing sense of wonder about the natural world. I want to express my ongoing gratitude to my colleagues and my students for making the journey so much fun.”

Beyond the superlatives, Doudna’s scientific career speaks for itself. Jack Szostak, her thesis adviser at Harvard University, remarks, “Her thesis work spanned synthetic chemistry, molecular biology and genetics, and was published in 10 papers, including three in Science and Nature.”

Although “conventional wisdom had concluded that large, biologically interesting RNAs were unsuitable for X-ray crystallography,” Thomas Cech, Doudna’s postdoctoral adviser, explains, she “solved the first structure of a large domain of the Tetrahymena ribozyme.”

Building a research program upon this and other structures, which clearly showed how RNA can act catalytically, Doudna moved in 1999 to Yale University, where she continued her crystallography work. “Her time at Yale was intensely productive, with previously recalcitrant RNAs falling like dominoes before the increasingly successful Doudna lab,” Szostak remarks.

Thomas Steitz of Yale University observes, “Her structure of the P4-P6 RNA fragment of the group I intron was the first to show that RNA can have a tightly packed globular fold, not unlike proteins.”

In 2002, Doudna moved to the University of California, Berkeley. There, her lab solved the structure of the siRNA Dicer enzyme from Giardia, elucidating its function as a molecular ruler. Today her team is investigating the machinery of the RNA-mediated acquired immune system in bacteria. As Dinshaw Patel of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center notes, this latest endeavor represents a “tour-de-force set of structural and biochemical studies.”

Joan Steitz, in her nomination of Doudna for this award, commented that “just as three-dimensional structures transformed our understanding of proteins, Dr. Doudna’s high-resolution X-ray analyses of large RNAs have had momentous impact.” Doudna, she continues, “is not merely a crystallographer but a consummate molecular scientist who can apply whatever physical or biochemical approach is needed to solve an important problem.”

Szostak concurs, stating that Doudna “has sought out whatever techniques are needed to solve interesting and important but difficult problems.”

Doudna has been the recipient of many prestigious awards, including the Beckman Young Investigator Award in 1996, the National Academy of Sciences Award of Initiatives in Research in 1999 and the Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry in 2001. She was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 2002 and has been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator since 2002.

Beyond her impressive scientific achievements, Doudna is known as an exceedingly excellent educator. Szostak observes, “She instills her trainees with the confidence to tackle important problems while conveying to them the knowledge and experience needed to do so successfully.”

Michael Marletta of The Scripps Research Institute said of Doudna’s 2006 Science paper revealing that the micro-RNA processing enzyme Dicer acts as a molecular ruler, “Mildred Cohn would be smiling at these results and the way they were obtained.”

Doudna will receive her award during the Experimental Biology 2013 conference in Boston, where she will deliver an award lecture. The presentation will take place at 9 a.m. April 24 in the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

About Mildred Cohn

Throughout her career, from graduating high school at the age of 14 to becoming the first female appointed to the editorial board of the Journal of Biological Chemistry and the first female president of what was then the American Society of Biological Chemists, Mildred Cohn was a pioneer and inspiration for female scientists throughout the world. Cohn’s endeavor to understand both enzymatic mechanisms and cellular metabolism resulted in breakthroughs in the development of nuclear magnetic resonance methods that changed the way we study enzymatic reactions.

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Maggie Wear
Maggie Wear

Maggie Wear is a Ph.D. student in the molecular and cellular biology program at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md. Her research focuses on the mechanisms of radiation resistance in lower eukaryotes.

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