Ada Yonath and the Female Question

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.

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

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.)

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?

A woman from the audience snaps a photo of Ada Yonath. Photo by Kathleen Raven

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 stay 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.

Ribosome chocolate cake baked by a female researcher in Yonath’s lab. Photo by Kathleen Raven

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.

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.

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