Ada E. Yonath: A woman's journey in science
Philippine Daily Inquirer
24 March 2015
WHEN SHE WON the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009, Ada E. Yonath was hailed around the world as the first Middle Eastern woman, the first Israeli woman, and the fourth woman in history to be granted the award. But for Professor Yonath herself, there was nothing special about a woman winning a Nobel.
"I can't think this is because of my gender. And, I don't think that I did something that is especially for women, or the opposite. During my time I had some very difficult years and I had very pronounced competition, all by men. But I don't think that this is because I was a woman," she said in an interview that year with Nobelprize.org soon after the announcement.
In a visit to De La Salle University (DLSU) on March 2, Ms. Yonath explained in a press conference that she saw herself as a scientist above all, regardless of gender. "I saw myself as a scientist and not as a female scientist - it has nothing to do with my gender," she said.
Science is a male-dominated field. Collectively, according to Nobelprize.org, only 46 women were awarded the Nobel Prize in different categories between 1901 and 2014. This is out of 860 awardees.
Ms. Yonath thinks that part of the reason there are very few women granted the Nobel Prize (in chemistry she was the fourth after Marie Curie in 1911, Irene Joliot-Curie in 1935, and Dorothy Crowfoot-Hodgkin in 1964) was because there are few women in science, and not because there is discrimination against women.
"I don't think the committee was sitting there and saying, 'No women, no women, no women,'" she said, adding, "I think that it's because there are less women in science, that's why there are less nominations."
Still, there have been reports and studies showing that women are at a disadvantage and sometimes discriminated against in the sciences. American chemist Stephanie Kwolek, who invented Kevlar in 1966 (the steel-like fiber used in radial tires, crash helmets, and bulletproof vests), remembered that during her time at American chemical company Du Pont, women were having a hard time staying in science, according to Mary Bellis's article, "Women in History."
Ms. Kwolek, according to that article, said women who got jobs inside the labs would only stay for a few years, then were encouraged to move on to "women's fields" like the social sciences. They were not promoted as soon as the men were, which is why many moved out after a few years. But she was one of the few who decided to "stick it out."
"I think that it doesn't help to be a woman in science. Maybe now, but not when I was progressing. But I don't think it disturbs," Ms. Yonath said in the 2009 interview.
During the press conference at La Salle, she said it was "wonderful" to be in a male-dominated field and she didn't have problems being a female scientist. What she dealt with, she said, were scientific problems.
Born in 1939 in Jerusalem, Ms. Yonath was, by nature, a very curious child. When she was five, one of her first experiments was to measure the height of their balcony by using the furniture in their apartment.
"I put a chair and a table on another table, and then a chair and a stool on top, but [that] did not reach the ceiling. Hence, I climbed up on my construct, fell down on the backyard on the ground floor and broke my arm... Incidentally, the results of this experiment are still unknown, since the current tenants in the apartment have remodeled the ceiling," she recounted in her autobiography in the book series Le Prix Nobel published in 2010.
She grew up poor in a four-room apartment shared with two other families. Her memories from childhood, she said, centered on two things: her rabbi father's medical condition and her constant desire "to understand the the principles of nature around me."
"Despite the poverty of my parents, and the lack of formal education, they went out of their way so I could obtain a proper education in a very prestigious secular grammar school called Beit Hakerem," she wrote.
Her father died when she was 11 and because her mother found it hard to make ends meet, she had to do all kinds of jobs to help support the family: babysitting, cleaning, and tutoring younger children.
In 1962, she earned her bachelor's degree in chemistry from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and two years later she completed her master's degree in biochemistry from the same institution.
At the press conference she said that choosing chemistry was a challenge.
"Chemistry was one of the hardest majors to get into, so I applied for that and I passed," she said.
At the end of the 1970s, she was researcher in the Weizmann Institute of Science (where she earned her doctorate in 1968) with an ambitious plan "to shed light on one of the major outstanding questions concerning living cells: the process of protein biosynthesis," by determining the three-dimensional structure of ribosomes (the cell structures that create proteins).
"This was the beginning of a long quest that took over two decades, in which I was met with reactions of disbelief and even ridicule in the international scientific community," she said in the autobiography.
In the 2009 interview, she said that her search for the structure of the ribosome started when, stuck at home recovering from a bicycle accident, she read about how hibernating bears preserve their ribosomes through the winter.
Ms. Yonath was awarded the Nobel Prize (which she shared with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz) because of her work, which took over two decades, uncovering the structure of the ribosome using cryo bio-crystallography -- an application of crystallography which is used to determine the arrangement of atoms in crystalline solids in very low temperatures. This feat was at first met with skepticism, as it was difficult to determine the structures at the time, with samples disintegrating easily.
She described her road to discovery as thinking they had succeeded climbing Mouth Everest but at the peak realizing that the true mountain top still lay a considerable distance ahead, and that the journey toward discovery was far more enjoyable than winning the prize itself.
"So every climb was an achievement but there was a bigger problem behind it or above it. I had lots of minutes that I didn't expect, but I thought science in general, and this science particularly, is worth the effort - even if we would never get the ultimate result," she said, recalling her 2009 interview, as she clarified in her lecture that the "discovery was the climax... I was not thinking of winning any prize."
Her pioneering discovery now contributes to combating antibiotic resistance which she called "one of the most severe problems in modern medicine."