The excellence diary: Female Nobel Laureate inspires students to do better

Manila Bulletin
13 March 2015

If you get the chance to be in the same room with a luminary who has made an impact on the lives of people worldwide - or has somehow managed to alter the course of history so to speak - you must be compelled to take it, seize it, grab it.

This is what I thought when I first heard that Prof. Ada Yonath, 2009 Nobel Laureate for Chemistry, was set to deliver a lecture at De La Salle University for the 5th ASEAN Event series of Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace. I had no qualms when I had to free up my schedule and drop everything else that day. I knew that being able to listen to Dr. Yonath was an opportunity and an experience of a lifetime.

Dr. Yonath received her bachelor's degree in Chemistry and her master's degree in Biochemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1962 and 1964, respectively. She earned her PhD in X-Ray Crystallography at the Weizmann Institute of Science in 1968.

She held postdoctoral positions in Carnegie Mellon University in 1969 and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1970, where she worked with 1976 Chemistry Nobel Laureate William N. Lipscomb, Jr. of Harvard University. She is also a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, visiting scientist at the Heinz-Günter Wittmann, Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, and head of a Max-Planck Research Unit at Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg while continuing her research activities at the Weizmann Institute of Science, where she is the holder of the Martin S. and Helen Kimmel Professorial Chair.

The Nobel Laureate didn't disappoint. Pleasant and motherly in appearance while displaying quick wit, she was able to engage a crowd of over 1,500 people in a meaningful lecture about Ribosomes. Yonath, the first Middle Eastern woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Science, introduced a technique called cryo bio crystallography. Her pioneering work has led to the creation of 3D models that revolutionized the field of structural biology, giving it a wide range of applications. This has led to the development and design of new antibiotics.

"Prizes are nice, but encountering the actual discovery is more fulfilling. The result is the result, the discovery is the discovery. It was both emotionally and intellectually satisfying," Dr. Yonath says about her Nobel Prize.


Prof. Ada Yonath receives an honorary Doctorate in Science from DLSU. She is the first woman Nobel Laureate to be given such honor from a Philippine university.

A chemistry lecture might sound like a bore to many people because it is seemingly far-removed from the movement of daily life. But for the many who attended the talk, it was everything but boring. Students from medical schools, universities, and high schools converged at De La Salle University to listen intently to Dr. Yonath as she shared her experiences as a scientist. Coming from humble origins, she decided to take up chemistry because she thought it was a practical choice.

"I chose chemistry because it was the most practical. I applied for the most difficult course to get into at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Chemistry. I got accepted and never looked back, despite being one of the few women who went into the sciences at the time," Dr. Yonath says.

Her deep sense of wonder, however, has led her to scientific breakthroughs that have changed the landscape of both medicine and chemistry. She also inspired us listeners by saying that while there were many obstacles and there was no fixed recipe for success, one could pursue excellence in one's chosen field. This kind of determination has caused her to reach groundbreaking findings in chemistry. This message does not resonate only with chemists - it also speaks to those who aspire to contribute positively to the world in whichever way they can.

As a part of the audience for this lecture, I was also very glad to see that many students were interested in learning more about Dr. Yonath and science. I imagine many young students being inspired by the insights she shared. Perhaps, someday, one of the audience members will win a Nobel Prize or move on to do things that will make the world a better place.

"They [the youth] should just look for ways, I don't think that one prescription works for everybody. But in general, when I think about what the option is, they should identify which part they are good at, what is interesting for them. It doesn't have to be science. Focus on that," Dr. Yonath says.