Nobel Laureate Ada Yonath: '99 percent of the scientists laughed at me'

March 5, 2015

Nobel Laureate for Chemistry Professor Ada Yonath was in the Philippines on Monday, March 2, to deliver a talk at the De La Salle University in Manila about her discovery which revolutionized the way the world fought disease.

The first Middle Eastern woman to win a Nobel prize in the sciences charmed the audience with her quick wit and no-nonsense attitude. Through videos and colorful illustrations, she explained her work on the structure of ribosomes, which are the "factories"that produce proteins continuously by decoding the genetic information in cells.

Yonath was able to show how different antibiotics bind to ribosomes, and how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. Thus, scientists were able to build on her work and develop new antibiotics to save lives.

The first woman in 45 years to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009, Yonath was given a standing ovation at the end of her lecture titled "Moving forward to maintain sustainability for the future of mankind".

La Salle President-Designate Br. Raymundo Suplido FSC also conferred upon Yonath the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, during the event organized in partnership with the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation.

"Ninety-nine percent of the scientists laughed at me," she said after recounting how she began her work at the end of 1979. Yonath would talk to her colleagues about looking in to the structural basis for the functions of ribosomes, and they would reply to her, "You must be kidding! All that can be learned about ribosomes is already known!"

After suffering a brain concussion in a bicycle accident, she had a lot of time on her hands and chanced upon an article about hibernating bears in the North Pole. The behavior of the animals' ribosomes when they were asleep prompted her own hypothesis, which then led to her findings.

"When I saw the results, the discovery the first time, I was overwhelmed. At least a month or two I couldn't see anything, just the structures coming," she recalled. "I can't really describe (the joy), so deep it was."

Two of her peers and former detractors even tried the same experiments she did and received the Nobel Prize with her.

"I'm not an applicative scientist. I experienced a very nice, very unexpected situation that there is application to my work. But this is not the driving force. This is not what I expected," Yonath said.

Born to a poor family in Israel, she urged young students not to let financial constraints prevent them from succeeding.

"They (should) just look for ways," Yonath said at a press conference following her lecture. "I don't think that one prescription works for everybody. But in general, when I think about what the option is, they should identify in which part they are good, what is interesting for them. It doesn't have to be science... focus on it."

In fact, she applied for the most difficult course to get into at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Chemistry. She got accepted and never looked back, despite being one of the few women who went into the sciences at the time.

"I see myself as a scientist. Not as a female scientist. It has nothing to do with my gender," said the 2008 recipient of the L'Oreal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science.

She valued her role as grandmother just as much. During her lecture, Yonath gushed about a speech her granddaughter had written about her, which said, "She always finds time for me."

Yonath also presented a certificate her granddaughter gave her that was "as important" as the Nobel Prize. It read, "The grama of the year is Ada Yonath!"

Being a scientist did not hinder her from performing her duties at home, she said, adding that three of her female colleagues were exceptional mothers. Showing a picture of a coworker with a cake, Yonath quipped, "Scientists can even bake cake!"