Navigating through grad school can be a daunting process in itself.  While you might find yourself busy with your research projects and teaching duties, making time to figure out how to make the best of your time as a graduate student, and how to make yourself an ideal candidate for your future career, is essential.  The Huck Graduate Student Advisory Committee (HGSAC) aims to help you along with this process, by providing career and professional development resources, and by letting graduate students meet with professionals in various STEM fields.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna came to Penn State and delivered to a full house.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna came to Penn State to deliver a seminar on the CRISPR/Cas9 system.

Last semester, Dr. Jennifer Doudna came to Penn State and gave a seminar on the CRISPR/Cas 9 system. She was gracious enough to also have lunch with graduate students for a Q & A session (co-hosted by the HGSAC and BMB department). Below are her (paraphrased) responses to our student questions.

Career advice or questions:

Which experience or opportunity during your education or early career contributed most to your success?

There were two main experiences that I think contributed the most. I grew up in Hawaii, and when I first read “The Double Helix”, that was the first “spark” that got me interested in science. Then, in the 10th grade, there was a program where they had a scientist talk to students, including a biochemist working on cancer cell research, and that helped reinforce my interest.

How do you think the interactions with your previous advisers (Dr. Szostak and Dr. Cech) benefit your academic career?

With my first advisor, I learned that you need to be proactive. As a first year, my advisor asked me about this idea, and he actually trusted me to make decisions on the science, even as a novice–that made a big impression on me to have early success.

During my post doc, Tom Cech was insightful about making the best of your data and interpreting your results, which also benefited my career.

Could you recommend some ways to find a lab for a promising postdoc experience? Should the lab of a very well-known PI be preferred, or the lab of a new PI in a promising topic?

Whether the PI is well known or new, you should pursue what you are interested in first, and then consider the personality and environment of the lab, make sure it’s a stimulating environment.

Could you provide some insights on what helped you with first being a professor?

It was more like a fly by the seat of your pants experience. You have to be willing to do every job in your lab, initially. That means even fixing leaky faucets. It’s a great idea if you can hire a technician right away to help set up. This person would be able to help you initiate the culture you want in your lab. Science is about people working together.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna with HGSAC members during the Q & A lunch session.

Graduate student/research advice:

Do you have any advice for women who want to pursue an academic career?

Don’t put yourself down, try for positions even if you do not think you are likely to get them, and make sure you choose a supportive life partner.

How do you complete a project efficiently?

Delegate, rely on students and postdocs, and make sure that there are subgroups of the lab so that everyone is teaching one another. Then, meet regularly, and constantly ask the questions of “are we working on the most important question? Is there new literature?”

What kind of qualities do you look for in a candidate?

Honestly I think my job is to figure out what the students are best suited for. We need scientists trained in all sorts of methodologies, and my job is to help them figure out what they should focus on.

Work/life balance and gender adversity:

What have you found to be the most effective way to balance work/life?

Pick the right life partner. If you want to have kids, involve them in your work–bring them to your conferences and trips!

Have you been faced with any adversity as a woman in science? If so, how did you overcome it and do you have any tips or advice for graduate students in general?

I’ve generally worked with males and females who were very encouraging. I think it’s important to have a personality that can deal with delayed gratification.

CRISPR/Cas9 questions:

Did you have a moment where you had to consider the ethical considerations with CRISPR, like human genome editing?

There was an evolution in my way of thinking. Initially, there was so much excitement that this was possible, then it became clear it would work in any cells including embryos and germ cell line. It was when they genetically modified monkeys that it seemed like a profound topic to discuss this in the community. I have gotten involved in the call for a public discussion about gene editing, especially in the germ line. Tomorrow, I will be attending a summit at the International Academy of Science, for a global discussion of the matter. We need a transparent discussion about this, to not do that would be irresponsible.

How did you balance the research on new biotechnology and industrial development of a technique?

We’re still focusing on biology and the underlying molecular mechanisms-understanding this enables you to do many other things. By working on fundamental mechanisms, we can learn more about how to refine this process of gene editing, gene disruption and gene replacement. It’s not a transition but rather a natural progression.

What is your prediction of how CRISPR/Cas9 will be used 10 years from now?

Transcriptional control and live-cell imaging will be further developed. Eventually, this will be a tool in your molecular toolbox, like PCR.  Its’ an enabling technology, I am excited with the science that will be done with this.

Did you celebrate when you realized what you had with CRISPR?

There was definitely this moment of joy when I realized what we had.

Other questions:

Have you ever considered working in industry?

Yes, I worked at companies in Boston but I chose academia because I found it was the best way to pursue “pure” science. I worked for Genentech for a few months then came back because I wanted to have an applied direction to research. As the VP of research, there’s actually a lot more administrative and management duties than I expected. I missed actually doing the science. That’s why I went back into academia.

What do you think about the future of high-risk science funding?  With decreased funding, how do you move forward?

We need to have a mechanism to enable scientists to be creative and explorative. Remember, a grant is not a contract.  Once you have the money, you should have some freedom to pursue “risky” science. You will likely be rewarded. Your judgement should come in here as to whether or not you think it will succeed. You can bootstrap ideas. In general, I think you don’t need huge resources to do good science.


For more information on future career and professional development events and seminars, visit our website here!

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