Scientific Collaborations Are Precarious Territory for Women
Nobel laureates Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier first met at a 2011 conference in Puerto Rico, where both gave talks about a then little-known biological system called CRISPR–Cas9, which bacteria use as an immune defence. They immediately hit it off. “She was coming to CRISPR from a very different perspective than I was,” Doudna says. “And I liked her.”
The two women began working together across fields and continents — Doudna is a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley. Charpentier, a microbiologist, was at Umeå University in Sweden at the time. Over the next year, they adapted the CRISPR system to edit DNA in any species. The technique is now used to genetically modify organisms for everything from routine laboratory research to agricultural uses and cancer therapies.
In 2020, Doudna and Charpentier became the first all-female team to win a Nobel prize, and only the second winning team to include more than one woman. Aside from winning science’s top medal, Doudna calls the collaboration with Charpentier “one of the great joys of my life”. Their complementary scientific expertise and commitment to the collaboration made the work enjoyable. “I loved her intensity and quiet sense of humour,” Doudna adds. “Because we worked in time zones 9 hours apart, the project progressed quickly, in part because one of us was always working.”
Collaborations, particularly across disciplines, are increasingly necessary for performing quality science and for career advancement. Doudna, like many other scientists who spoke to Nature, says that gender plays no part in who she chooses to collaborate with or recruit into her lab. But for many female researchers, who are in a minority in most fields, navigating this landscape can be tricky. Breaking into the ‘old boy networks’ of senior scientists and their male protégés can be difficult for women. Ensuring that they receive proper credit for their work can also be a challenge. Female scientists, who, as a whole, are more junior than their male counterparts, often have to decide whether they want to collaborate with a well-resourced scientist, who is more likely to be male, or with a peer of any gender whose stature won’t overshadow them. By collaborating with other women, whether through informal mentorships and networks, building diverse lab groups or securing savvy co-authorships, female scientists can push back against the systemic barriers to female-led team research.