When asked what drives him to keep seeking answers to the challenges he faces in the lab, cancer researcher Olivier Humbert cites the “refreshing and inspiring vision and quest for life” of his two children. No wonder it filled him with pride last year when his daughter gave him a Father’s Day card that read, “I want to be a scientist because they do cool things.”
In fact, Humbert and his colleagues are doing some of the coolest, most cutting-edge research in science today. They are working to improve the efficacy and safety of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing in blood stem cells. Derived from the components of a simple bacterial immune system, the revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9 system enables highly targeted gene editing of a wide variety of cell types.
While CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing already shows remarkable promise, it is still a new technology that requires perseverance. Humbert views such challenges as part of the inevitable trial and error of scientific research. “A failed experiment will at some point be followed by a breakthrough,” he says. “You have to keep reminding yourself that discoveries are built upon failures; be patient and work methodologically when designing your experiments.”
His other solution to dealing with frustrations is sometimes simply to take a break, to take a step back and think about what could have gone wrong—and in his case, a break might turn into a bicycle ride. “When time permits, a long ride helps me reboot and clear my mind,” he explains. A bike ride may at first seem too removed from lab experimentation to function as a source of scientific problem-solving, but consider Dr. Humbert’s initial childhood interest in science: “Growing up, I spent a lot of time outside surrounded by nature,” he says. “That really triggered my curiosity about how living things work and how they’re put together—so that’s what brought me to the field of science in the first place.”
The sense of wonder Humbert discovered as a child exploring the natural world resonates with the sense of renewal he experiences now on epic bike journeys; it informs his dedication to solving important challenges in the lab; and it clearly has helped instill a love of science in his own children. If Humbert’s pioneering work with CRISPR-Cas9 technology leads to more effective ways to treat cancer, who knows? Perhaps his children will someday follow in his tracks and be part of a generation of scientists that makes cancer a thing of the past.
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