Pioneering Leadership with Jennifer Doudna and Esther Duflo
This week’s World Reimagined podcast episode features two leaders who have changed the world in remarkable ways.
Today’s changing world faces continuous social, economic, and environmental challenges—from disease to natural disaster to war. The leaders stepping up to solve these issues possess deep ambition, vision, and skills to bring their ideas to life.
In this episode, host Gautam Mukunda speaks with Jennifer Doudna, Ph.D., Professor of Chemistry and Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley and Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry and Esther Duflo, Ph.D., Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at MIT and Nobel Prize Winner in Economic Sciences. Together, they discuss how great leaders can pioneer breakthroughs and effectively enact change—from discovery to implementation.
There are so many things I kind of wish I had known early in my career, but the big ones for me are, first and foremost, that each person is an individual and has their own sets of passions, strengths, weaknesses, desires.Jennifer Doudna, Ph.D., Professor of Chemistry and Molecular and Cell Biology at UC
Try to avoid micromanaging people. You get much more done if you can trust someone to run with it.Esther Duflo, Ph.D., Professor of Poverty Alleviation & Development Economic, MIT
Guest Information for Pioneering Leaders:
Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna is the Li Ka Shing Chancellor’s Chair and a Professor in the Departments of Chemistry and of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her groundbreaking development of CRISPR-Cas9 as a genome-engineering technology, with collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, earned the two the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and forever changed the course of human and agricultural genomics research.
This powerful technology enables scientists to change DNA — the code of life — with a precision only dreamed of just a few years ago. Labs worldwide have re-directed the course of their research programs to incorporate this new tool, creating a CRISPR revolution with huge implications across biology and medicine.
In addition to her scientific achievements, Doudna is a leader in public discussion of the ethical implications of genome editing for human biology and societies, and advocates for thoughtful approaches to the development of policies around the safe use of CRISPR technology.
Doudna is an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, senior investigator at Gladstone Institutes, and the President of the Innovative Genomics Institute. She co-founded and serves on the advisory panel of several companies that use CRISPR technology in unique ways.
She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Inventors, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Doudna is also a Foreign Member of the Royal Society, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and has received numerous other honors including the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (2015), the Japan Prize (2016), Kavli Prize (2018), the LUI Che Woo Welfare Betterment Prize (2019), and the Wolf Prize in Medicine (2020). Doudna’s work led TIME to recognize her as one of the “100 Most Influential People” in 2015 and a runner-up for “Person of the Year” in 2016. She is the co-author of “A Crack in Creation,” a personal account of her research and the societal and ethical implications of gene editing.
Esther Duflo is the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics in the Department of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-founder and co-director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). In her research, she seeks to understand the economic lives of the poor, with the aim to help design and evaluate social policies. She has worked on health, education, financial inclusion, environment and governance.
Professor Esther Duflo’s first degrees were in history and economics from Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris. She subsequently received a Ph.D. in Economics from MIT in 1999.
Duflo has received numerous academic honors and prizes including 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (with co-Laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer), the Princess of Asturias Award for Social Sciences (2015), the A.SK Social Science Award (2015), Infosys Prize (2014), the David N. Kershaw Award (2011), a John Bates Clark Medal (2010), and a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship (2009). With Abhijit Banerjee, she wrote Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, which won the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award in 2011 and has been translated into more than 17 languages, and the recently released Good Economics for Hard Times.
Duflo is the Editor of the American Economic Review, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy.
Ideas can change the world. Leadership makes sure it changes for the better.
It's very hard to force teams to come together. It really, at least in my experience, often has to be more organic.
Most of the education in terms of thinking about how to look at the work on from these experiences in the field.
Speaker 2 (00:25):
World Reimagined with Gautam Mukunda, a leadership podcast for a Changing World, an original podcast from Nasdaq.
I knew zero about leadership when I started.
No one, it seems can look at earth from space and not feel changed. There's something about being up here on the edge of human knowledge and exploration that makes the challenges we face back home seem massive and minuscule at the same time.
Speaker 1 (01:09): Three, two...
Massive because you get a true sense of the vast forces that govern our world, and minuscule because they seem like they could fit in the palm of your hand. When you pass over Northern Africa and look down, you can see the Sahara, the largest hot desert in the world. It takes up over three and a half million square miles, has shaped human history for thousands of years, and thanks to a change in climate, has grown by 10% in the last century. And in that time, untold numbers of people have had to scratch a living out of this harsh terrain, often not by choice. The phenomena that shaped this desert, like the problems that face our planet are massive, systemic and unending, and the people affected by it are too numerous to count.
Building solutions for people who find themselves in the desert literally and metaphorically will require the same pioneering spirit that put this space station thousands of miles above it. In the relatively short time humans have existed on earth, our planet has produced a steady parade of challenges, requiring fresh innovations and leaders bold enough to find solutions. But those truly global challenges can often seem too daunting to even attempt. So what is it that drives someone to try?
So I don't exactly know where it comes from. All I can tell you is that it was always there.
Esther Duflo is an economist and a professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Studies at MIT. She is the Co-Author of Poor Economics and Good Economics for Hard Times. And in 2019, she and her partners won a Nobel Prize for their experimental work combating global poverty. And at first she was drawn to economics, not by an inherent love of the subject, but by its vast potential to affect change on a global scale.
I had first started economics and then thought, "Oh, maybe I should work on that." I in fact, only moved to economics from history, which it was what I was doing as an undergraduate because I realized this is how I could finally answer what was really a calling in a sense to try and make my little part of making the world a better place. My mom is a doctor, is a pediatrician, and she was involved in French doctors organizations. So she was traveling in various countries where kids were victims of war when I was a child and she would come back and show us some slides shows. And I remember for example, the first time she visited the Sahara Desert and asking, "Which country do these people live?" And she said, "Oh, they don't have a country." That's the problem. So that was always with me from then on saying, "How can I justify the crazy luck I have to be born in upper middle class France where I have a great home and schools to go to and so on when there are kids my age who don't even have a country?"
So for the longest time I didn't really know what I was going to do about it, but I felt I needed to do something about it. And at some point I discovered economics could be a way, and that's when I decided to join the field. So at this point, I was no doubt that I was joining the field to try to learn, to find my corner to make it better.
When you get down to a genetic level, it's remarkable how uniform human beings are. Compare us to dogs, for example, specifically my dog, Rudy, who is 22 pounds of appetite, entitlement, and love. Sometimes on a walk we'll encounter a Harlequin great Dane who weighs 200 pounds and seems to have more genetic similarity to a horse than to my little guy. At a first glance, it can be hard for all parties involved to comprehend that they're the same species, but that's how diverse a single species can be. Humans, though, aren't like that. Any two random humans are likely to bury less than 0.1% at the genetic level, far less than any two random members of almost any other species, including our closest relative, the chimpanzee.
And if changes that minute can produce all the genetic diversity among the eight billion people on this planet, then understanding our DNA and how to take advantage of its power is one of the most important tasks scientists can undertake. Few people have ever contributed more to that task than Jennifer [inaudible 00:05:52]. She is a Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology and Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley and her work stands shoulder to shoulder with Esther in both its revolutionary impact and its potential for global change. They have something else in common too. Jennifer also has a Nobel Prize for her work on the genome editing platform CRISPR, which made the question of what drives her as a leader particularly interesting.
Jennifer (06:17): Fundamentally, I don't know, except it's always been there for me as well. I grew up in a small town in Hawaii and I was keenly aware of the disparities in the culture of the islands between people that had immigrated to Hawaii or to the United States and we're based now in Hawaii and dealing with the disparities in socioeconomic status based on their immigration status. Again, very interesting. Like Esther, I felt like I had just some incredible opportunities based on chance, where I had been born. My parents were both academics and intellectuals and so we had a lot of opportunities in our family, even though we didn't have a lot of money, but we had a lot of opportunities to learn and to develop our minds.
And I felt so fortunate to have been put into that circumstance and I was keenly aware of the need to give back, I guess, based on that opportunity. So for me, that's probably where it started. And like I said, I've always since then been thinking about how the work that I do might ultimately have long-term impact. And I think that has to be through addressing some of the challenges that we're facing globally and where I think science and technology can play a very important role.
As you each think about your role as not just great researchers, but I guess I'd say as public intellectuals is the phrase that springs to mind, people who are using the platform of that research to shape the world, to actually have people make decisions in policy, in the public policy world, in the business world about that, how do you think about doing that most effectively, about leveraging this platform that you have created to get people to sort see what the right thing to is-
[00:08:04] Created to get people to see what the right thing to do is and then do it.
In my case, it's basically we are trying to... It rests on three pillars, if that makes sense. The first one is research, not just my research, but the research of an increasing group of people. And it's facilitating that, so raising money for that, setting up the infrastructure for that, setting up the ethical implication of what we do and ethical guidelines, setting up partnerships with NGO or government, and so on. So there is the research angle. Then there is the education angle to create a larger and larger group of people who are understanding the importance of focusing on concrete problems faced by the poor and who are equipped to deal with them is always solutions or always methods to learn what the solution might be. So this is education from general public intelligent type things to educating PhD students, both at MIT and in Africa, or so on.
And then, the third, is the connection with policy makers. So, basically, surfacing the questions that are important to policy makers at a given point in time, and that's very contrary and context specific. And also spreading the answers that we have discovered in we being a very large we of the entire research community, sharing those with policy makers who are maybe facing similar problems. So these are those three pillars that I'm trying to work with in parallel.
On my side, I think, Esther, your three pillars are somewhat parallel to my own. I would say that, in my case, it really begins with passion for science and communicating that passion to other people. Again, often, for me, it's through my activities, things that I'm working on in our laboratory, in our institute, working with students, helping them to see the direction of their work and where it can have real impact. So it's communicating that passion.
Secondly, it's coordinating with multiple different kinds of people. I feel like I'm in an amazing environment, especially here in the Bay Area of California, where, in addition to being surrounded by three of the world's best universities, we have access to technology, and entrepreneurs, and people who are influencing the world and public policy in various ways through business. So bringing together people from those different groups and working on projects that align with what everybody can bring to the table is very exciting.
And thirdly, it's about sharing all of that and disseminating it. And that's really through our educational work, not only through teaching and the traditional ways of educating students at the university, but it's also through public outreach. We have a very active team at the Innovative Genomics Institute who work with organizations, both here in the US and internationally, to help them understand what genome editing technology is, where it's going, and how it can have an impact on systems and activities that are going on globally.
It's not hyperbole to say that the work Esther and Jennifer have done has changed the world, but they also have to change minds. Science moves us towards an accurate understanding of the world by constantly trying to prove our previous views wrong. Showing that something we used to believe was actually incorrect is how you build a reputation as a scientist. But that is a profoundly unnatural act for most of us. Physiologically, human beings view contradictions to our basic beliefs like bodily attacks. Our stress responses fire the same way they would if we were physically threatened. We're not wired to want to be right. We are wired to want to feel right. And the quickest way to feel like that is to outright reject or ignore anyone who disagrees with you. So what do leaders do when they've just made a breakthrough discovery and it means that everyone else has to change their minds?
I think it's often presented as a placebo issue because when you evaluate a program, it may or may not have worked. But the truth is that you cannot possibly work with a partner on a randomized evaluation in the field unless they're very committed to know the truth too. And the projects where someone just does it for, I don't know, because a donor pushes it on them or because they're thinking would be good for PR, these projects are never working anyways. So you can only do this project if people are quite committed to find out. Usually, you are in situation of relative [inaudible 00:12:49] where they are genuine uncertainty about what's the best path forward, and people are quite keen to find out.
So, in fact, in my day-to-day work, I would say it's not really been a problem. And maybe at the beginning it was a problem to find out enough people who were interested in finding out, but now it also isn't. They are just plenty of potential partners. And I'm sure there are plenty of people who would like to work with us just for the name or repetition. We would've problems with them. But then we are actually not working out. We're not working with them.
In my work, the science is often what I find to be both challenging and exciting in terms of communicating what is going on to whether its regulatory agencies, public policy makers, people who are outside of the direct world of science. Because as we talked about earlier, there's the truth, there's what's really going on and then there's the hype around it and misconceptions maybe about where the technology is today or where it's headed. And with genome editing, it's a very powerful technology that has risks associated with it, like any powerful tool. And those risks can be very real, but they can also be misconceived. They can be misunderstood. So I've felt that that's one of the major challenges that we have in the field, honestly, is trying to ensure that as the technology advances, and it's doing so very quickly, that there is accurate information available for people that want to look at that, about where the technology is today and where it's headed.
Can I ask a follow-up on that?
Gautam (14:37): Please.
It's on the risk question. So given the power of genome editing, and it's a question from a complete pedestrian, and the substantial upward potential and the substantial downward risk, at least in the future, what can we as society or you as an individual, because you've been very active in this field, not just in the field of genome editing, but in the field of thinking about the risk, how can you set structures up such that this risk are minimized, not just in the US for example, but in the world at large? China comes to mind, for example.
Great question. I'd love to ask you that question too, Esther, but I guess my answer would be that I've concluded over the last few years that the best hope we have of having some kind of control over a technology like genome editing, which is widely available and has been already deployed globally, I think the best hope we have in terms of controlling its future use is transparency and active global engagement as the technology advances.
Moore's law is the observation that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles every 18 to 24 months, or that the cost of an equivalent transistor will drop by half in the same amount of time. That Will drop by half in the same amount of time. That incredible speed of technological advance built the modern world. But compared to the field of genetics, it's as slow as a stunned turtle. Jennifer and her colleagues work under the Carlson curve. The finding that the cost of sequence DNA drops by 50% every 12 months, much faster than Moore's law. That means our ability to understand and alter the very stuff of life is advancing so fast, it makes the supercomputers in our pockets look like adding machines. This advance is putting power into our hands that no one could have imagined a generation ago, and it's only speeding up, which means leaders have to be careful. If our most powerful technology is advancing far beyond the reach of any one government to effectively control or regulate it, people like Jennifer and Esther have to make sure that these amazing discoveries change the world for the better and not for the worse.
So in the case of thinking about China, it's been I think, critical to have Chinese scientists who are quite prominent in their country and internationally engage with other people in other countries regarding the use of CRISPR technology, whether in human beings or in agriculture or in the environment, because it's really only through that kind of engagement on the scientific side, that I think we have a hope of ensuring accurate information as the technology advances and frankly, an understanding of how different cultures view a technology like this. Because as I'm sure you have experienced in your work, cultural viewpoints differ sometimes dramatically and one has to acknowledge that as technologies advance.
That leads perfectly to my next question, was there anything you wanted to ask each other? So Esther you started. Jennifer, is there anything you wanted to ask Esther?
Yes, well many things, but-
I thought so, yes.
But Esther, I would be very interested in hearing a bit more about your engagement internationally. It's quite impressive what you've been able to do and it sounded from your comments earlier as though a lot of your work is maybe sort of at a grassroots level. But I wondered if you could expand on that. And in particular, this is a challenge that we have as scientists is, "How do we engage with people who are actually going to be impacted in the end as science advances?" And I think you've shown some real leadership on that front with your own work.
Yeah, thank you so much. So I think we are in a sense, lucky for the fact that our work is very closely related to the field anyways. So if you're doing very important work on CRISPR, a lot of it will happen in a lab. But most of our work, regardless of whether it's important or not, happens in the field because we are not working on developing technologies, really. We are working on deploying them or deploying other people's technology or deploying things that have been known for a long time, such as a good education system or so on. And therefore, the work we do is immediately engaged with the communities and with the field.
(19:22): Early in my career was we were working mostly through NGOs who were extraordinarily rooted and that was very fundamental for me and foundational in terms of getting an understanding of the reality of the field as well. And most of my education in a sense comes from that rather than from the classrooms. I mean, I did have to learn some statistics that it still comes to use, but most of the education in term of thinking about how to look at the world, come from these experiences in the field. As the organization is matured, we work more with governments who themselves are often a degree removed from the population they serve, which is actually is a problem because they're not always aware of it.
And sometimes we have to tell them like, "Look, you really need to go closer to the field to understand what's going on before you make very lofty plans in the capital." So, the responsibility and the difficulty is to maintain this connection to the field and it's facilitated by the fact that everything has to be deployed. And whenever we've done project where we kind of drawn up some nice plan and let them roll out and weren't very closely involved, either to NGO partners or we have GPEL offices in every continent and field teams, pretty deep field teams everywhere. For example, in India we have maybe 1500 staff members on the field at any given point in time. These are all kind of ways of always being there and getting feedback and also on giving back to the communities in which we work, sharing results and so on.
Esther, you mentioned this sort of leading these people, it makes me think for both of you. So I often work with junior faculty who have sort just gotten started leading a lab and they have research groups. And it occurs to me that both of you, even as we've talked about your roles as leading on the public stage as public intellectuals, you're both leading teams yourselves. And you've learned a lot about doing that and leading your research groups and the teams of graduate students and other researchers who you have guided and who you helped. So, what did you learn about leadership from that experience that you would want other people to know that you think sort of almost, what do you wish you had known when you were getting started about leadership that you know now?
Well, on my side, I would say I knew zero about leadership. Most scientists, maybe this is different now, but I don't think so. Most scientists are trained to do research and to be great at that type of focused effort in the laboratory at the expense of learning how to manage people and to work, I would say in teams, at least in my case. And I've had to learn anything I do know about that now, strictly on the job. And I would say that, gosh, there are so many things I kind of wish I had known early in my career. But the big ones for me are first and foremost that each person is an individual and has their own sets of passions, strengths, weaknesses, desires, reasons for coming to science in the first place. So I think my job first and foremost is to try to figure that out for each person that I work with and to help them to be the best scientist that they can be.
And that often involves understanding a bit about who they are as a person, what they enjoy doing, what they don't enjoy doing. And I've also found that it's very hard to force teams to come together. It really, at least in my experience, often has to be more organic. So what I try to do in my own research group as well as in our institute is look for people who I think would have a natural affinity. Whether it's just through their personalities or the type of work they like to do, or passions that they have and bring them together. And not always, but it often leads in really exciting and unexpected directions because they get together and they start talking and ideas are formed that probably wouldn't have come about otherwise. And that's what drives forward innovation. So I'm fascinated by this. I continue to think about how to be better at it, and it's one of the things that I love the most about my job.
Oh, wonderful. And Esther?
So I knew nothing at all, and I still know very little. So I'm sure if you ask me in five years, "What do you know now you wish you knew," there are many mistakes I'm making at this moment. What I've learned, many things I've learned. But maybe the one thing that is overarching is that... Well, two things. Is one,-
It is overarching is that... Well, two things. Is one, try to avoid micromanaging people. You get much more done if you can trust someone to run with it. And there might be issues and they might come back to you with problems, and that's all right. But people need to have the confidence to just try things out on their own.
The second thing is not to always be in a rush. So I like things to be done and to be done quickly, but what I've now discovered is that sometimes it is worth taking on some more constraint that seems constraint at the moment, but actually serve a point that you might not quite see.
I'll give you a simple example. When I first started to do research in India, you could very easily send research assistants to India from the US and get them visas, and they would be great, very enthusiastic people who would do excellent work. And at some point that became impossible. The visa situation changed, and we couldn't hire a junior staff that was not Indian or of Indian origin. We had to deal with it and we just started to hire a Indian research assistant.
And we are so much better for it now to have a set of staff member, research assistant from India who knows the situation better, understand it better. And I think the world is better for it because they go on and do various things, either in India or outside of India, and they would not have entered the field. So in our effort to kind of achieve our short term objective of doing a good project, we were actually hindering the more longer term objective of creating a deep bench of people, of diverse people, who could make our work and more importantly the world better.
So this is something which was imposed to us from outside, which I've now started to do from inside, of taking a longer perspective of why are we in this business for and what is it better served by. Sometimes going a little more slowly on getting a result, but building a deeper infrastructure works better on...
The work that Esther, Jennifer, and their teams have done, has touched millions of lives, and they're far from finished. So I wanted to know who could have made an impression on two leaders like them? Who had most impressed them and why?
Mine is easy because I'm just going to have lunch with her in an hour. One of the person who impressed me the most is someone called Rukmini Banerji. She's one of the founder of the Indian organization Pratham, which is the same age as J-PAL, my organization. So we grew up together and we had teenagers together, and we are now 20 year old together. That is organizations, not children.
So she has a PhD in education. She understands very deeply how kids learn and how to learn about how kids learn. But she, along with Madhav Chavan, the co-founder of Pratham, build a machine that has inspired hundreds of thousands of people to work with millions of children who have made it true difference in the life of the children by ensuring they are getting a good education. And they have been able to do that by having a single minded focus on finding out the tools, finding out what works, finding out what can work at scale, and getting it implemented. And they have been role models for me as well as close friends.
Well, I'm thinking of a couple of women who are one probably better known publicly than the other, who are very successful business women who are interested in giving back in the sense that they recognize that there are huge opportunities for people who have been traditionally not encouraged to become entrepreneurs or leaders in the business world. One of them is Tory Birch, and the other one is Selina Chow.
So Selina Chow is based in Hong Kong, and Tory Birch is based in New York. And both of them are people who are highly successful in their respective industries as female entrepreneurs who had to deal with a lot of the kinds of sometimes subtle and sometimes not very subtle discrimination against people who look different or are different in the business world. And so I'm proud to be working now with both of them at our institute to support programs that encourage people who have been traditionally not part of the leadership, of certainly the biotech industry to become so and to get the kind of support and training and advice that we hope will help them be highly successful.
One way of being a leader is exploring the unknown as much as any astronaut. Using research to fill in the gaps in our knowledge to show us how the world we inhabit really works. That research is often split between the physical and social sciences. The physical sciences tell you that this desert below us is here because this region has a semi-permanent high pressure weather system, which causes the air to sink rather than rise and blocks the formation of rain clouds. And the social sciences tell you that for millennia, that band of hot, dry air has shaped the economy, the culture, and even the faiths of the people who live under it.
Mastery in one field or the other will certainly make you a great scientist. But it's understanding both why something happens and its effects on human beings that makes someone a great leader. Being a pioneering leader means filling in the blanks in our understanding of the universe, but it also means sharing that knowledge with the rest of the world and crucially making sure that the ideas you're bringing back spell help instead of harm. And those skills, making those new discoveries and persuading people to use them for the betterment of everyone, they don't coexist in many people and they need to be nurtured with empathy, curiosity, and determination. But if you can understand the forces behind poverty, inequality, and the building blocks of life itself, and you can bring others along on the journey to the benefit of everyone, then you can be the kind of leader who just might change the world.
Speaker 2 (30:49):
World Reimagined with Gautam Mukunda, a leadership podcast for a changing World, an original podcast from Nasdaq.
Speaker 3 (31:03):
Gautam Mukunda does not speak on behalf of Rose Park Advisors, LLC or any of its affiliates, and is not soliciting investments or providing investment advice.