An Undergraduate and a Nobel Winner
Imagine you’re an undergraduate with the great fortune of having a faculty research mentor. And then your mentor wins the Nobel Prize! Welcome to the life of Davina Dou, a UC Berkeley senior majoring in Molecular and Cell Biology, and a mentee of Professor Jennifer Doudna, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
“Being mentored by a Nobel laureate is both surreal and humbling!” says Davina. “Dr. Doudna is so involved in every aspect of her lab, and it's encouraging to see that her scientific curiosity never stops. Her research has definitely evolved, and I’ve learned that it's important to always ask probing questions about both what we already know and what we don’t know.”
As part of Berkeley’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow (SURF) program, Davina worked in Dr. Doudna’s lab on probably the most revolutionary and cutting-edge area of the life sciences: CRISPR gene editing. Davina helped to develop a live-cell imaging platform to understand the mechanisms and potential of the CRISPR-CasX enzyme to be harnessed for gene editing.
UC Berkeley’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarships (OURS) oversees SURF, along with a wide range of programs, workshops, partnerships, and communication platforms to support undergrads who want to engage in Berkeley’s dynamic research enterprise. This includes the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP), Haas Scholars Program, Prestigious Scholarships, Underrepresented Researchers of Color, UC Washington Program (UCDC), and the Stronach Baccalaureate Prize. Each program has its own unique way of getting undergraduates up close with faculty members and their research.
Students report that these experiences are profoundly transformative. In fact, Berkeley’s undergraduate research opportunities are unique among its educational peers, but the prevalence of award-winning teachers and mentors is a rarity. Most high-level research institutions allow their prizewinners to stay in the lab and avoid the classroom, but at Berkeley it’s different. Nobel laureates, MacArthur Fellows, Pulitzer Prize winners and other extraordinary professors both teach and mentor – and they want to!
“It’s amazing that Berkeley’s most recognized faculty are so engaged with undergrads,” says Undergraduate Studies Dean Bob Jacobsen. “These superstar professors not only do their own research and work with graduate students, they also teach undergraduate courses, serve as advisors, and have undergrads in their labs. This really doesn’t happen very often at other schools.”
For Jennifer Doudna, mentoring is about giving back. “Without the mentorship of several key individuals in my past who took the time to train me, I might not have ended up in science at all. It's how science builds and sustains itself. It's a great pleasure for me to keep the tradition alive, and to show young students from all backgrounds what a life in the sciences is like — and that there's a place for them if they want it.”
Others state that undergraduates bring a fresh and vital perspective to their work. Says Professor Robert Full, a faculty member who often employs undergraduate students, “My research outpaces that of my competitors because of my undergraduates. They raise questions that others don't. Their open-mindedness influences the work in my lab in incredibly fruitful ways.”
For Davina, SURF was life changing. “I’m very grateful to have been a student in Dr. Doudna's biology class as well as a mentee in her lab. It’s been an immensely enriching learning experience. Because of the SURF program, I’m definitely exploring my professional career options in this field!”