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Ada Yonath and the Female Question


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Nobel Laureate Ada Yonath waits on the left wing of the stage before giving her lecture on July 3. Photo by Kathleen Raven

Nobel Laureate Ada Yonath waits on the left wing of the stage before giving her lecture on July 3. Photo by Kathleen Raven

Just minutes after Ada Yonath learned of her shared Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work on the ribosome in October 2009, she answered another phone call. This time Adam Smith, editor-in-chief of the Nobel Prize Foundation, spoke crisply on the other line, asking her questions for a short, recorded phone interview, per tradition.

Recently I listened repeatedly to the beginning of this recording to catch Yonath’s inflections, as nuanced as crevices on the ribosomes she crystallized in her lab.

After a brief congratulations, Smith says to Yonath: “You are the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry since Dorothy Hodgkin in 1964.”

Perhaps in the excitement, Yonath hears something else.

“I think I’m the fourth,” she says. “There was Marie Curie—then [Irène] Joliot-Curie shared it with her husband, and now it’s me.”

“Exactly, that’s right. You’re the fourth ever,” Adam quickly responds.

Ever aware of her place in history as a female Israeli scientist, Yonath has in past meetings brushed aside questions of “how,” “why,” and “what if,” related to gender. In 2010, she gently challenged fellow Lindau meeting bloggers, Lorena Guzmán and Lou Woodley, on why being a woman should matter. The following year, Lindau blogger Lucas Brouwers — by design or accident — sidestepped gender altogether in his laudable summary of her lecture. This year, when I arranged for a one-on-one interview with Yonath, I was determined not to bring up the “women in science” issue. (After all, good work is good work, I told myself. We need to highlight accomplishments—and not repeat the list of society’s barriers.)

A woman from the audience approaches the stage to snap a photo of Yonath. Photo by Kathleen Raven

A woman from the audience approaches the stage to snap a photo of Yonath. Photo by Kathleen Raven

But my confidence wavered as Yonath stepped onstage for her talk. Several women from the audience walked boldly past me toward the podium to snap photos of their heroine. I glanced around and noticed — was it coincidence? — that, at least in the front row, women outnumbered men. Was I doing a greater disservice to women in science by ignoring Yonath’s gender?

Suddenly, these questions hardly mattered. Yonath pulled me into her story. I sat mesmerized by short films that included antibiotics targeting ribosomes. In a talk that began on a deceptively simple level with the definition of proteins (“long chains of amino acids”), Yonath soon reached her main concern: antibiotic-resistant pathogens. She implored pharmaceutical companies and researchers to consider new drug compounds with mechanisms of action that affect multiple functions of ribosomes. Such “synergism” may be key for minimizing resistance, Yonath explained. She listed antibiotics currently in use that target only single sites. Tetracycline, for example, prevents A-site tRNA binding. Erythromycin interferes with nascent protein progress by blocking the protein tunnel. Clindamycin obstructs the process of peptide bond formation.

Nearing the end of her allotted half hour, Yonath then projected a slide summarizing her “blue dream.” (This is different from the ‘blue sky research’ concept also covered at this year’s meeting.)  Yonath’s blue dream referred to the color she used to indicate which countries and people currently have fast and easy access to antibiotics. Large swaths of Africa and parts of Asia were brown—patients in these areas remained in danger of needless deaths due to a lack of antibiotics.

As Yonath began thanking members of her lab, I breathed a sigh of relief. She had answered the question for me: The key was to focus on science, and not on how being a woman may or may not have been more difficult for her during her career.

Just then, Yonath gave a rare pause. She scanned the audience. “Young girls,” she said. “Young girls ask me: ‘Should I say in science or not?’ They have fears about being a good scientist and having a family.” She clicked to the next slide in which three women were featured prominently. “You can see here three fantastic researchers working in science,” Yonath said. “Now, do you want to see the cake?”

Click.

Taking up the entire frame of the next slide sat a mouth-watering chocolate “ribosome-shaped” cake, baked and, yes, decorated with chocolate icing, by a female lab researcher.

A chocolate ribosome-shaped cake baked by a female researcher in Yonath's lab. Photo by Kathleen Raven

A chocolate ribosome-shaped cake baked by a female researcher in Yonath's lab. Photo by Kathleen Raven

My one-on-one interview with Yonath was later moved to a different time, and then re-scheduled once more to a time I couldn’t make. Such is the challenge of the Lindau meetings, when many journalists and young researchers want to talk to a small group of Nobel Laureates. I never got a chance to sit down with Yonath, but I haven’t given up on a meeting. Just as Yonath, a new role model for me, didn’t give up on her ribosomes.

Related:

Behind the Greatest Experiments: Basic Research
Chemistry and diversity
Unity and diversity
Videos with a personality, flow and message
Cataloging the impact of Lindau meetings
Chemistry and physics: one needs the other
A receding horizon, now within reach
The GPCR symphony
The Blurry Line Between Small and Quantum Small
Supramolecular chemistry – Moving away from synthesis and toward design
Imaging the near invisible with TEM: a master class
Steven Chu talks innovation, energy, climate change and awareness
Avram Hershko’s lessons for doing good science
Energy storage, rare metals and the next ice age
All our hopes and fears: Why we need psychologists at Lindau

And see our In-Depth Report and the 30 Under 30 series on the main site.

This blog post originates from the Lindau Nobel Online Community, the interactive forum of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. The 63rd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, dedicated to chemistry, is held in Lindau, Germany, from 30 June to 5 July 2013. 35 Nobel Laureates will congregate to meet more than 600 young researchers from approximately 80 countries.

Kathleen Raven is part of the official blog team. Please find all of her postings on the Community blog.

Kathleen Raven About the Author: Kathleen Raven is a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. She received her MS in Ecology with a focus on sustainable agriculture and MA in Health & Medical Journalism from the University of Georgia. Follow on Twitter @sci2mrow.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 3 Comments

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  1. 1. Hadas Shema 3:34 pm 07/11/2013

    I hope you’ll get your for an interview with Yonath soon. Great post!

    Link to this
  2. 2. drDMJ 10:40 am 07/12/2013

    Read your interesting blog with pleasure, Kathleen, thanks; and you deserve that interview. Here’s my own take on the issue you raised. Last January I got lucky in the Wimbledon Tennis ticket ballot — the tickets I was offered to buy were 7th July, Centre Court, Men’s Finals. I went. The tennis was awesome: neither Murray nor Djokovic ever gave up; each made the other work for every point; both played fiercely competitive tennis and were supremely sportsmanlike at the same time. Everyone who watched knows how roller-coaster the final game was: Murray was 40/love up, serving for three match points. Yet Djokovic clawed him back three times to deuce. Then three more times it went deuce, advantage to one, deuce, advantage to the other, until Murray finally closed it out and won. What’s this got to do with your issue? Just this: When he lost, Djokovic didn’t just meet Murray at the net and congratulate him — he trotted around the net between it and the umpire’s chair over to Murray’s side and embraced and congratulated him; Murray at the same time and later in his speech praised and consoled Djokovic as a friend. Competition is good and makes for achievements. Sportsmanship, by which I mean fair and even, is even better within the competition. Scientists are scientists. How can gender have anything to do with it?

    Link to this
  3. 3. Tomorrow Lab 11:54 am 07/18/2013

    Thanks, Kathleen. This is a crucial topic that deserves attention. Here is a video of Prof. Ada Yonath’s amazing story. She’s an inspiration in so many ways. http://bit.ly/14iqrFo

    Link to this

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