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At C&EN’s Futures Festival, Stuart Schreiber and Jennifer Doudna offered tips on building a career in science

by Bibiana Campos-Seijo
August 29, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 33


For the C&EN team, last week was dominated by the inaugural Futures Festival, a 2-day virtual forum featuring the people, ideas, and discoveries that will shape the future of the sciences. The 30-plus speakers provided many memorable moments, but I wanted to highlight the words and contributions of 2 of them.

Harvard University’s Stuart Schreiber was the keynote speaker for C&EN’s Talented 12 symposium. The Talented 12 showcases rising stars, so we traditionally have asked keynote speakers for this session to focus their remarks on their journey through science. The goal is to inspire, guide, and encourage the Talented 12 and others who are taking the first steps to establishing a career in research.

Schreiber started by confessing that he was “ill suited for today’s task.” It couldn’t have been further from the truth, and he went on to deliver a deeply personal address about the events and the people that stimulated his passion for science, how he got into his area of research, and more.

The many questions from the audience included ones about picking a research area. His advice was to “do something that feels like the most important thing to you.” Listen to yourself, he counseled, and “allow yourself to be on an information-gathering expedition.” There may be temptation or the pressure to choose quickly, Schreiber added, but “give yourself time to forage.”

Schreiber talked about supporting his students during the pandemic. “I personally find it hard and struggle like everyone does,” was his response as he admitted to crying in front of his lab when talking about matters related to COVID-19. “There’s a lot of stuff out there to worry about,” he acknowledged, but if we build a nurturing environment people feel comfortable sharing things. Human connectedness, he explained, is essential for mental health but also for success in research.

The fireside chat that C&EN deputy executive editor Lisa Jarvis hosted with Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, was also rewarding. Earlier this year, Doudna had guest-edited C&EN’s inaugural Trailblazers issue focusing on women entrepreneurs, so it was apt that she headlined the Trailblazers symposium.

A serial entrepreneur, Doudna received requests for guidance on establishing a company. She emphasized that it has many parallels with setting up a lab. You need good ideas but, above all, great people: a dynamic, nimble team composed of people who are creative, hardworking, inventive, and enjoy teamwork. She advised that choosing people with the right values will build a culture that breeds success.

Doudna encouraged the audience to “figure out what you are passionate about,” because that is when things “start falling into place.” Discussing leadership styles, she admitted that she had never thought of herself as a leader. But mentorship and opportunities to build on her strengths changed that.

The pandemic also came up during the conversation. It has increased the pace of innovation in CRISPR, her field of research, and showed that we need scientists and innovation more than ever, Doudna said. The pharma and biotech industries in particular have a sense of “excitement about work, hiring people, working on problems that feel really relevant.” She speculatedthat this unprecedented situation might encourage children to expand their interest in science and their understanding of its importance.

Both talks are worth watching in full. All sessions are available for on-demand viewing upon registration at

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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