Jennifer A. Doudna, Ph.D., professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, whose leading work in structural biology provided an answer to how RNA can act like an enzyme, has been awarded the Alan T. Waterman Award from the National Science Foundation.

The award, instituted by Congress, is made each year to an outstanding scientist or engineer, 35 or younger, and includes a grant of $500,000 over three years for scientific research or advanced study in any field of science. She is the 25th recipient of the award, established in 1976, and only the third woman to be so honored.

Her work explains how RNA can act like an enzyme to catalyze specific biochemical reactions and how polyanionic RNA forms a three-dimensional structure. Doudna’s most recent work has to do with the structure of the signal recognition particle, showing how this recognition takes place on a molecular level.

A colleague who nominated Doudna for the award, Professor Joan Steitz, also of the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, said, “There can be no question that her pioneering accomplishments have changed the way the scientific community thinks about RNA molecules. Such exceptional achievements are precisely what the Waterman Award was created to recognize.”

Doudna’s laboratory is continuing to build on the RNA research, focusing on two questions: how RNA played a role in evolution, and what can be learned about how life evolved by looking at RNA protein machines that exist in modern biology.