When Israeli scientist Professor Ada Yonath was growing up, her role model was the Polish-French scientist Marie Curie, the pioneer in the field of radioactivity. During her lifetime Marie Curie was awarded two Nobel prizes in different scientific fields. Now, fittingly, Yonath has been awarded a Nobel prize of her own.

Yonath, who is 70, was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry for her groundbreaking work in understanding how cells build proteins. She is only the fourth woman to win the Nobel chemistry prize, and the first since 1964, when British woman Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin received the prize.

The professor, who is head researcher in the field of structural biology and biochemistry at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, shares her prize with UK scientist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and American Thomas A. Steitz. The decision was announced today by the Nobel committee in Stockholm.

Yonath is widely considered the pioneer of ribosome crystallography. Her research, carried out over a 25-year period, has revealed the modes of action of over 20 different antibiotics that target bacterial ribosomes.

Through this work she has been able to identify how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, a problem of great concern worldwide as the growth of antibiotic resistant super bugs like MRSA, continues unabated.

New bacteria-resistant antibiotics

Her 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.

The scientist, who has won many prizes for her work – including the Israel Prize in chemistry, the Wolf Prize in chemistry, and the L’Oreal and UNESCO Life’s Work Prize for women in science, was also the first Israeli biologist to work with NASA, sending research material to outer space. She contributed her expertise on 12 NASA missions.

Yonath, who spent Israel’s War of Independence huddled in a Jerusalem bomb shelter, is no conventional scientist. Her family were poor, and her parents had little education. They recognized their daughter’s talent, however, and ensured that she go to the best possible schools.

“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,” Yonath told ISRAEL21c in an interview last year.”We were so poor we didn’t even have books.”

In the past, Yonath says, the common wisdom was that women were not good at math or science, and could not be good scientists because of the time and dedication the profession requires.

Women can do great things

“Women make up half the population,” she told ISRAEL21c. “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.”

This year’s three laureates in chemistry all generated three-dimensional models that show how different antibiotics bind to ribosomes.

In a statement the Nobel committee said: “These models are now used by scientists in order to develop new antibiotics, directly assisting the saving of lives and decreasing humanity’s suffering. All three have used a method called X-ray crystallography to map the position for each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of atoms that make up the ribosome.”

Yonath, who says that retirement is a long way off, is to receive a share of the prize of 10 million kronor [$1.4 million], a diploma, a gold medal and an invitation to the prize ceremony in Stockholm in December.

In 2005, Israeli mathematician, Yisrael Robert Aumann received the Nobel Prize for economics for his work on conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis. He shared the prize with Thomas Schelling.

Israeli physicist Yakir Aharonov lost this year’s Nobel Prize for physics, despite predictions that he was likely to win.