From trying to see if she could touch her tongue to the tip of her nose as a young child huddled in a Jerusalem bomb shelter during Israel’s War of Independence, to accidentally starting a fire while trying to see whether water moves faster than kerosene, award winning Israeli scientist Ada Yonath has always been fascinated with how things work.
“All my life there were experiments. It was just plain curiosity. Once I broke my arm when I fell into the garden trying to measure the height of our balcony,” says Yonath, 69, a molecular biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science who recently became the first Israeli to receive the $100,000 Life’s Work Prize for women in science from L’Oreal and UNESCO.
Yonath, a professor of structural biology and the director of the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly at the Weizmann Institute, won the award for her 25-years of research into the ribosome protein-synthesizing system and the mode of action of antibiotics.
Widely considered the pioneer of ribosome crystallography, Yonath has revealed the modes of action of over 20 different antibiotics that target bacterial ribosomes.
Through this groundbreaking work, she has been able to identify how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, a problem that is worrying the medical establishment and governments worldwide as the growth of antibiotic resistant super bugs like MRSA, continues unabated.
Yonath’s research lays the groundwork for scientists to start developing new bacteria-resistant antibiotics that better target the ribosomes of pathogens to avoid the problem of resistance.
Yonath’s natural curiosity has been indulged since her youth, she tells ISRAEL21c. Though her parents had little opportunity for education themselves, they were supportive and insightful enough to assure that their unconventional daughter was given a good academic education – even if it meant taking two buses to get her to a school in another Jerusalem neighborhood.
“I never thought about me being a woman or not when I did science – I was just a human being born into an extremely poor family,” says Yonath, whose family moved to Tel Aviv after her father died. “We were so poor we didn’t even have books.”
But one book she did manage to get her hands on and read was the story of Madame Marie Curie, the pioneer in the field of radioactivity, who was awarded two Noble prizes in two different scientific fields. The story of the Polish-French scientist sparked a desire in her to do more science.
Another key to her successful pursuit of science was the backing and encouragement she received from some of her teachers. Her elementary school math teacher Zvi Vinitzky introduced her to the principal of the elite Tichon Hahadash in Tel Aviv, Tony Halle, a German refugee.
Taken by the young girl’s abilities, Halle admitted her to the school although she was not able to pay for the tuition. In repayment Yonath tutored young Bulgarian immigrants in math.
In the past, Yonath says, the common wisdom has been that women are not good at math or science, and that their role as mothers precludes them from being good scientists because of the time and dedication the profession requires.
“Women make up half the population,” she says. “I think the population is losing half of the human brain power by not encouraging woman to go into the sciences. Woman can do great things if they are encouraged to do so.”
She herself has held a number of postdoctoral positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University, among others. She has also won several other prizes for her work including the Israel Prize, the Wolf Prize and Columbia University’s Louis Gross Horwitz Prize; all the while balancing her work, her family life and raising her daughter.
“If a woman is happy with what she is doing at home and at work then everybody is happy,” Yonath says.
Today, plans to retire are still a long way away, and she works hard to encourage young women to enter scientific fields by welcoming organized groups into her lab to give them a closer look at the scientific life through a program organized by a local high-tech company, Elop.
“I want them to decide for themselves if they want to study science,” she says. “I would like woman to have the opportunity to do what is interesting to them, to go after their curiosity. And I would like the world to be open to that. I know in many places there is opposition to that.”