Saint Mary's College Welcomes Prominent CRISPR Scientist James Nuñez

3D render illustration of DNA structure On Friday, March 9, James Nuñez, an award-winning postdoctoral DNA researcher in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at UCSF, spoke at Saint Mary’s about the latest promising developments in gene editing, as well as his experiences as a Filipino scientist. Nuñez’s presentation was part of the Pathways to Science speaker series sponsored by the Caminos a Las Ciencias (CALC) program, an SMC initiative to boost the success of Hispanic and low-income students in STEM fields. The STEM Center and the Intercultural Center hosted the event.

Nuñez, who was born in the Philippines, came to the U.S. to attend the University of Colorado as an undergraduate before receiving his PhD from University of California Berkeley. He is currently developing gene-editing technology based on CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), unusual DNA sequences that help protect organisms by identifying threats and attacking them. He was recently named a Hanna Gray Fellow by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute—a distinguished honor is bestowed upon early career scientists who are poised to make significant and important contributions to science in the years to come.

Calling CRISPR one of the most remarkable scientific discoveries in recent years, Nuñez discussed the potential of CRISPR-based technologies to correct genetic defects, treat diseases, and “turn off” particular gene sequences that are tied to debilitating diseases.

CRISPR sequences, he explained, are remnants of genetic code from past immune-system invaders in the body, such as viruses. They naturally serve as genetic memories that help cells detect and destroy invaders when they return. Thanks to the fellowship, Nuñez is creating new CRISPR-based tools to identify and examine the function of mysterious molecules called long non-coding RNAs, which can promote the growth of cancer cells and stem cells.

In keeping with Pathways to Science speaker series tradition, Nuñez devoted the second part of his presentation to a discussion of his development as a scientist. Up until his senior year of college, he said, he intended to go to medical school. But then he discovered the wonders of a research lab, with a mentor helping him discover “how fun an experiment can be even if it does not turn out the way you expect.”

Meanwhile, while living in rural Colorado, he often found himself in the situation of being the only person of color in the room. He often felt like he didn’t belong, and was forced to adjust to his peers in order to fit in. As a result, he learned to be flexible.

Unexpectedly, these difficulties proved helpful in his career, preparing him for the countless struggles and frustrations of performing scientific research. His career track, he said, requires a tremendous amount of time and patience. You “live for the good days,” he said, and tough it out through the failures. Failure itself, he said, is not “the end,” but a means to further understanding of the subject at hand.

Nuñez ended his talk with advice to current students. Picture where you want to be in three to five years, he advised. From there, work toward your goal, and keep it as your compass in hard times.

Following Nuñez’s presentation, the Intercultural Center presented him with an award recognizing his revolutionary work and dedication to furthering science.