Skip to Main Content

The Code Breaker -- Young Readers Edition

Jennifer Doudna and the Race to Understand Our Genetic Code

Adapted by Sarah Durand

About The Book

Walter Isaacson’s #1 New York Times bestselling history of our third scientific revolution: CRISPR, gene editing, and the quest to understand the code of life itself, is now adapted for young readers!

When Jennifer Doudna was a sixth grader in Hilo, Hawaii, she came home from school one afternoon and found a book on her bed. It was The Double Helix, James Watson’s account of how he and Francis Crick had discovered the structure of DNA, the spiral-staircase molecule that carries the genetic instruction code for all forms of life.

This book guided Jennifer Doudna to focus her studies not on DNA, but on what seemed to take a backseat in biochemistry: figuring out the structure of RNA, a closely related molecule that enables the genetic instructions coded in DNA to express themselves. Doudna became an expert in determining the shapes and structures of these RNA molecules—an expertise that led her to develop a revolutionary new technique that could edit human genes.

Today gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR are already being used to eliminate simple genetic defects that cause disorders such as Tay-Sachs and sickle cell anemia. For now, however, Jennifer and her team are being deployed against our most immediate threat—the coronavirus—and you have just been given a front row seat to that race.


Chapter One: Hilo CHAPTER ONE Hilo
If she had grown up in any other part of America, Jennifer Doudna might have felt like a regular kid. But in Hilo, an old town in a volcano-filled region on Hawaii’s “Big Island,” the fact that she was blond, blue-eyed, and lanky made her feel like a complete freak. Her classmates called her a haole, a negative term for people who weren’t Native Hawaiians. Feeling so different made her become skeptical of others and careful about the situations she chose to get herself into, even though later in life she became very friendly and open to new experiences.1

Her family often told Doudna and her sisters stories about their ancestors. One of the more popular tales involved one of Doudna’s great-grandmothers, who was part of a family of three brothers and three sisters. The parents could not afford for all six children to go to school, so they decided to send the three girls. One daughter became a teacher in Montana and kept a diary that has been handed down over the generations. Its pages were filled with tales of determination, hard work, and long hours in the family store, and other frontier pursuits.

“She was crusty and stubborn and had a pioneering spirit,” said Doudna’s sister Sarah, who now has the diary.

In fact, she was a little like her great-granddaughter Jennifer Doudna.

Doudna was also one of three sisters, although there were no brothers. As the oldest, she was spoiled by her father, Martin Doudna, who sometimes referred to his children as “Jennifer and the girls.” She was born February 19, 1964, in Washington, DC, where her father worked as a speechwriter for the Department of Defense. More than anything else, he wanted to be a professor of American literature, so he moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, with his wife, a community college teacher named Dorothy, and enrolled at the University of Michigan.

When he earned his PhD, Martin applied for fifty jobs and got only one offer, from the University of Hawaii at Hilo. He borrowed $900 from his wife and moved his family there in August 1971, when Doudna was seven.

That’s when Doudna began to feel alone and isolated, especially at school.

In the third grade, she was so unloved by her classmates that she had trouble eating, and she developed all sorts of digestive problems that she later realized were stress related. Kids teased her every day—especially the boys, because unlike them she had hair on her arms. To protect herself, she escaped into books and developed a defensive layer.

There’s an internal part of me they’ll never touch, she told herself.

Many creative people—including Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Oprah Winfrey, and Malala Yousafzai—grew up feeling slightly alienated from their surroundings. Like them, Doudna started to become curious about where humans belong in the universe. Digging deep and reading everything she could get her hands on, Doudna tried to figure out who she was in the world and how we all got here.

Fortunately, this loneliness did not last forever. Life began to get better halfway through third grade, when her family moved from the heart of Hilo to a new development of houses that had been carved into a forested slope on the edge of the Mauna Loa volcano. She switched from a large school, with sixty kids per grade, to a smaller one with only twenty. There they studied US history, a subject that made her feel more connected to her roots and less like an outsider.

“It was a turning point,” she recalled.

Doudna thrived so much that by the time she was in fifth grade, her math and science teacher urged her to skip a grade. Her parents agreed and moved her into sixth grade, and that year she finally made a close friend, a girl with whom she has kept in close contact her whole life. Lisa Hinkley (now Lisa Twigg-Smith) was from a classic mixed-race Hawaiian family: part Scottish, Danish, Chinese, and Polynesian. She knew how to handle the bullies.

“When someone would call me a… haole, I would cringe,” Doudna recalled. “But when a bully called Lisa names, she would turn and look right at him and give it right back to him. I decided I wanted to be that way.”

One day in class the students were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. Lisa proclaimed that she wanted to be a skydiver. Doudna thought that was so cool. Lisa was bold in a way Doudna had never been. So Doudna told herself she needed to learn to be brave, and soon she started to be. Doudna and Lisa spent their afternoons riding bikes and hiking through sugarcane fields, where the biology was lush and diverse, with moss and mushrooms, peach and arenga palms. They found meadows filled with lava rocks covered in ferns, and in the lava-flow caves there lived a species of spider with no eyes. Doudna wondered, How did this spider come to be? She was also intrigued by a thorny vine called hilahila or “sleeping grass,” because its fernlike leaves curl up when touched.2

We all see the wonders of nature every day, whether it be a plant that moves or a sunset that reaches its pink finger rays into a sky of deep blue. The key to true curiosity is pausing to think about the causes. What makes a sky blue or a sunset pink or a leaf of sleeping grass curl?

Doudna was curious about all those things and more, and she soon found someone who could help answer such questions. Her parents were friends with a biology professor named Don Hemmes, and he and Doudna’s family loved to go on nature walks together. They especially liked hunting for mushrooms, which was Hemmes’s scientific interest. After photographing the fungi, he would pull out his reference books and show Doudna how to identify them. He also collected microscopic shells from the beach, and he would work with her to categorize them so that they could try to figure out how they evolved.

Doudna’s exploration also continued at home. Her father bought her a horse, a chestnut male named Mokihana after a Hawaiian tree with a fragrant fruit. She joined the soccer team, playing halfback, a position that had been hard to fill because it required a runner with long legs and lots of stamina. At school, math was her favorite class because it felt like detective work.

Although she began doing well academically, she did not feel that teachers at her small school on the outskirts of Hilo expected much of her. She had an interesting response to that, though—the lack of challenges made her feel free to take more chances.

“I decided you just have to go for it,” she recalled. “It made me more willing to take on risks, which is something I later did in science when I chose projects to pursue.”

Her father was the one person who really pushed her. He saw his oldest daughter as his soul mate in the family, the intellectual who was bound for college and an academic career like him. Doudna felt like she was the son he’d always wanted to have, and that was why he treated her a bit differently than he treated her sisters.

Doudna’s father was a huge reader who would check out a stack of books from the local library each Saturday and finish them by the following weekend. Often he would bring home a book for Doudna to read. And that is how a paperback copy of James D. Watson’s The Double Helix ended up on her bed one day when she was in sixth grade, and was waiting for her when she got home from school.

Doudna picked up the book, looked at it, and put it aside, thinking it was just some silly story she’d breeze through and soon forget. When she finally got around to it on a rainy Saturday afternoon, though, she was hooked. In The Double Helix, Watson writes how as a twenty-three-year-old biology student from the American Midwest he ended up at Cambridge University in England and bonded with the biochemist Francis Crick. In 1953, he and Crick won the race to discover the double helix, the two strands that wind around each other and make up the structure of DNA. Doudna loved how the book reveals fascinating, groundbreaking science at the same time it tells a gossipy account of the adventures of famous professors doing lab experiments, then playing tennis and drinking afternoon tea.

In addition to his own personal story, Watson related the fascinating tale of Rosalind Franklin, a structural biologist and crystallographer, which is a scientist who studies the arrangement of atoms in solids. Watson sometimes wasn’t very kind to Franklin in the book, referring to her as “Rosy,” a name she never used, and poking fun at her serious appearance and chilly personality. Yet he was respectful of her mastery of the complex science and beautiful art of using X-rays to discover the structure of molecules.

Doudna sped through the pages, enthralled with what was an intensely personal detective drama, filled with vividly portrayed characters. The Double Helix taught her about ambition, competition in the pursuit of nature’s inner truths, and the importance of solid research. She also noticed how badly Rosalind Franklin was treated, in a condescending way that a lot of women endured during the 1950s. But what struck her more was that a woman could be a great scientist.

“It may sound a bit crazy,” Doudna said later, “but reading the book was the first time I really thought about it, and it was an eye-opener. Women could be scientists.”3

The book also led Doudna to realize something awe-inspiring about nature. There were biological mechanisms that governed living things, including the wondrous phenomena that caught her eye when she hiked through the Hawaiian rain forest. As she hunted for mushrooms and palms and spiders with no eyes, the ideas from the book made her grasp the fact that you could also discover the reasons behind why nature works the way it does.

Doudna’s career would be shaped by the insight that is at the core of The Double Helix: the shape and structure of a chemical molecule determine what biological role it can play in the world. This is an amazing discovery for those who are interested in uncovering the fundamental secrets of life. In a larger sense, her career would also be molded by the realization that she was right when she first saw The Double Helix on her bed and thought that it was a detective mystery.

“I have always loved mystery stories,” she noted years later. “Maybe that explains my fascination with science, which is humanity’s attempt to understand the longest-running mystery we know: the origin and function of the natural world and our place in it.”4

Even though Doudna’s school didn’t encourage girls to become scientists, she decided that was what she wanted to do. Driven by curiosity, a passion to understand how nature works, and a competitive desire to turn discoveries into inventions, Doudna would help make what James Watson would call the most important biological advance since the discovery of the double helix.

About The Author

No credit

Walter Isaacson is the bestselling author of biographies of Jennifer Doudna, Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein. He is a professor of history at Tulane and was CEO of the Aspen Institute, chair of CNN, and editor of Time. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2023. Visit him at

Why We Love It

“An accessible look at the science behind our genetic makeup, its relevance to the current pandemic, and a female badass whose been leading the charge and will be an inspiration to all who pick this book up.”

—Krista V., Senior Editor, on The Code Breaker

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (May 11, 2023)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781665910675
  • Ages: 9 and up

Browse Related Books

Awards and Honors

  • CBC/NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Book
  • CBC/NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

More books from this author: Walter Isaacson