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  • Writer's pictureDr. Gavin Weeks

Unravelling the DNA of collaboration

Updated: May 1

Two scientists, Professor Emmanuele Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 for their world-changing research into CRISPR (more of that later). Maddeningly, they were just the sixth and seventh women to win the prize since Marie Curie over 100 years ago. Their discoveries will change whole fields of research and practice for decades to come.

We tend to view prizes like the Nobel as the result of decades of outstanding contribution to one’s field. Charpentier and Doudna are both distinguished scientists in their own right. Their Nobel, however, was the result of a meeting at a conference in 2011. In our work we often think about the ‘space’ in which ideas and creativity take hold and we have no way of knowing what the impact of walking through the streets of San Juan in Puerto Rico had on their joint discovery but certainly there must be something about walking through a city that is both old and modern, that is a rich combination of culture and that looks to the sea and the hills.

Our two scientists met at the conference, formed a collaboration and made a Nobel-worthy impact on their field in a mere 4 years (it took the next 5 years for them to be made Nobel laureates). Who knows what each might have achieved working alone but it is surely their partnership that accelerated their progress and amplified their impact? The pace of their achievement implies a collaboration focused on action as much as thought, on testing ideas quickly rather than seeking to agree on the perfect way forward.

In the work that we do we with leaders, collaboration done right, is always an accelerator.

What other lessons can be learnt from this impactful and long reaching collaboration?

1. Wondering and Wandering The genesis of Charpentier and Doudna’s collaboration was an evening stroll and a chat about how bacteria defend themselves against viruses. Described by Time Magazine: “Walking the streets of old San Juan, the two scientists indulged their professional imaginations and realized they had complementary skill sets that could speed up the process of unpacking this gene editing mechanism.” This wondering fuelled research into ‘Crispr’ (which, for interest, stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats – we all know what that means don’t we?). As the New York Times explains “it’s an immune system that can adapt itself to fight each new wave of viruses – just what we humans need in an era that has been plagued by repeated viral epidemics”. Their research will change fields forever, from crop technology to medicine. All from a post-conference wondering (and wandering).

It is testament to the power of getting out of meeting rooms, away from desks (and Zoom) and allowing our minds to flit between focused and free-flowing thought, where chance conversations can germinate the seeds of new ideas. 

2. Perspectives and place Charpentier is a microbiologist whereas Doudna is a biochemist. Whilst these are related fields, they are nevertheless different enough that each brought a different perspective, different methods of research, and teams working with complementary yet diverse skills and knowledge. Without these different perspectives and expertise, it is quite possible that their work wouldn’t have been as impactful as it was, whether the breakthrough would even have occurred at all. However, there may be a more subtle dynamic in the partnership – their different career experiences. Doudna is an American and has spent her whole career in the US. Charpentier, meanwhile, has worked in 8 research institutions in 5 countries. We don’t know much about the dynamics of their partnership, other than the all-consuming and intense period of research that they launched into, but the impression is of restlessness tempered with patience, and a diversity of experiences and connections borne of their different career paths. 

3. Passion and pace Whilst they may not have shared the same professional temperament, they are both driven by what John Hagel refers to as ‘ the passion of the explorer’. Passion and drive was fuelled by what Professor Doudna describes as a “wild ride of emails” as they worked together almost in synchrony despite being 5000 miles apart. However, the journey, at least for Doudna, began in childhood. Her father left a book on her bed called ‘The Double Helix’, describing Watson and Crick’s breakthrough discovery of the structure of DNA. She was transfixed. Walter Isaacson, writing in the New York Times, characterises this early inspiration: “As she sped through the pages, she became enthralled by the intense drama, filled with colourful characters, about ambition and competition in the pursuit of nature’s wonders. Even though her high school counsellor told her girls didn’t become scientists, she decided that she would”. They will, no doubt, benefit financially from the companies that they have formed to commercialise the CRISPR technology. However, reading about them gives the distinct impression that these offshoots are part of the exploration but not the purpose of it.

4. Initiate and Invite We don’t know who initiated the conversation, or who made the first approach. But there is always an origin story at the heart of collaboration that begins with one person leaning in and asking a question. What we do know is that leaders who collaborate well are enthusiastic connectors – invitational and open. We leave you with question - as leaders how can you design your collaboration efforts to include these powerful lessons:

  1. Wondering and Wandering

  2. Perspectives and Place

  3. Passion and Pace

  4. Initiate and Invite


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