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Persistence and Prejudice

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Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier were in a race. They didn’t know each other and lived on separate continents, but each of them had chosen to explore the unknown field of RNA (Ribonucleic Acid) because the broader scientific community considered it a dead end and had focused on DNA instead. Doudna and Charpentier decided to risk their careers by pursuing this new field. As the old adage says, the greater the risk, the greater the glory. This is the stuff that Nobel prizes are made of. Each started making interesting discoveries and published papers.

Science has evolved over the last century. It is no longer the realm of the lone genius laboring at his/her workbench; it is now the province of well-funded laboratories, typically attached to universities, with one or two head scientists leading a team endeavoring to peel back the curtain of nature. It is collaborative and competitive at the same time. Once their papers were published, other people got interested and used the findings in those papers to launch their own inquiries into RNA—and the race was on. The need to win the discovery and publishing race is driven by ego, and by the need to keep the funding and grants for research coming in. What was once considered the backwater of microbiology rapidly became its Amazon. Walter Isaacson masterfully tells this story in his new book, The Code Breakers. Doudna and Charpentier won the Nobel Prize for their work in October 2020, narrowly winning their race over many other people who made significant contributions to the development of the use of RNA for gene splicing.

Have you received your vaccine shots yet? The fact that by the end of May more than half of the people in the U.S. have had their shots is one of the most remarkable achievements in medical history. Only 6 weeks after COVID-19’s DNA was deciphered in March 2020, the first successful vaccine was formulated. It took until early November for the testing, manufacturing and emergency approval by the FDA to make it ready for use. All this was made possible by the pioneering work of these two women.

This new science has also led to future possibilities that our world must now grapple with. A scientist recently said that the first person to live 1,000 years has already been born. We are facing a world in which all genetically caused diseases will be eradicated. We are also facing the possibility of designer babies—taller, stronger, smarter. As the world’s economy becomes more science-based, the gap in income disparity is likely to increase exponentially. There are many ethical complexities that our world will have to work through. Isaacson’s compelling book is a must-read harbinger of things to come.

Reading The Code Breakers reminded me of Whistling Vivaldi, by Claude Steele, which our book club read several years ago. Steele is a social psychologist who has spent his life studying how stereotypes affect the performance of people. Both Doudna and Charpentier were discouraged by counselors and teachers from pursuing math and science—as “girls don’t have the head for these fields.” They refused to be deterred from their passion, which is fortunate for the rest of us; there would have been no Covid vaccine if they had listened to the doubters. Think of what this world has lost over many millennia by wasting people’s talents due to stereotypes.

Steele and others have done countless studies proving that people of any race or gender perform equally based on their intellectual capabilities, but stereotypes can diminish performance. This is especially true for high-performing individuals. Studies show that women taking a hard math test will do poorer than men when told that the test has not been equalized for gender. Those same women will perform at the same level as men on the same test when told the test is designed to remove gender differences. Identity threat is another issue. One white person in a class with 25 black people studying black history will not perform to that person’s capability. The reverse is also true in similar situations. The easiest way to understand this is to look back on your own past and think of a time when you thought that you were in over your head. How well did you do?

This book will illuminate some of the issues our country is currently experiencing. With understanding comes recognition. Steele opens our eyes to the situation, and then offers practical suggestions to alleviate the problem.

Courtesy Simon & Schuster, W.W. Norton & Co.

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