It’s time for honors for geneticist Emmanuelle Charpentier. The 51-year-old Frenchwoman won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday, October 7, in the company of the American Jennifer Doudna. The two women are rewarded for their discovery of a genome editing technique called Crispr-Cas9, “molecular scissors” capable of removing and adding fractions of genetic material with extreme precision.
The researcher now heads the Max-Planck Research Center for Pathogen Science in Berlin. She answered questions from Laurent Desbonnets, France 2 correspondent in Germany.
France 2: How did you hear the news?
Emmanuelle Charpentier: I heard the news in my office. I received a phone call from Stockholm, from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. I was very moved, of course.
Did you expect it?
Emmanuelle Charpentier: It was clear that one day or another, Crispr-Cas9 would be recognized with a Nobel Prize. Now … would that be me? When would the news arrive … It wasn’t clear, so I realized this morning that I was very moved because I was having trouble reacting and understanding that it was real. And also because it reflected the last ten years which have been extremely intense because I was in Austria, then in Sweden, in Germany. I created libraries and got lots of prizes.
Do you have a message for young women?
Emmanuelle Charpentier: I have a message to get across first for basic research. This discovery is really the result of research in basic microbiology and infectious diseases. I think people now understand what infectious diseases are. [Il y a] therefore the need to support basic research all over the world on viruses and bacteria.
And [il y a] a second message which is of course … This award was given today to two women scientists, it reflects what is happening at the present time. There are more women who have laboratories and who do research. I hope that [cette récompense] can give the message, for the young women, to continue the research, to begin the research. Scientific recognition, or finding something important, is independent of being a man or a woman, it’s being a scientist and standing as a scientist.
Isn’t it a shame not to do your research work in France?
Emmanuelle Charpentier: I left France for twenty-four years already, if I count correctly. I have an international background, I am a “mobile scientist”, a mobile scientist, a free electron. I think France would find it difficult to give me the means I have in Germany. This does not mean that everyone in Germany has good means. It turned out that circumstances took me to Berlin. I think that scientific research needs to be supported by the government, by all public and private funds.
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Isn’t that enough in France?
Emmanuelle Charpentier: It is not enough in the whole world, but it is not enough in France. I think it’s a little bit in France, but also in Germany and elsewhere. Scientists are a little overwhelmed with administrative and managerial functions or demands that take a lot of time compared to science. Science takes a long time, it’s hard work. It is not by giving money that pays a thesis student for three years that we can really have a vision of research and do solid research. And that must not be forgotten.
What is it like to be in the line of Marie Curie?
Emmanuelle Charpentier: I don’t know, Marie Curie had two Nobel prizes [en 1903 et 1911]. So the challenge is a second … or not.