TORONTO — Ada Yonath, a molecular biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, has become the first Israeli to receive the $100,000 L’Oreal and UNESCO For Women in Science Life’s Work Prize.
Ada Yonath is a molecular biologist at the Weizmann Institute
Five prizes are awarded annually to outstanding female scientists on each continent. Yonath represented Europe/Israel. The prize was established by the cosmetics company in 1998 to promote the advancement of women in science.
Born in Jerusalem in 1939, Yonath is a crystallographer best known for her work on the structure of ribosomes. She received her PhD at Weizmann and in 1970 established what was for nearly 10 years the only protein crystallography laboratory in Israel.
At a recent roundtable discussion at L’Oreal Canada’s Toronto offices, Yonath said L’Oreal helps promote women in a field that is typically male dominated.
“The barriers and challenges facing women in science are not scientific. The challenges lie in the fact that women are less motivated to compete at higher levels. They worry more about their families than men, and they don’t often have the emotional support necessary to pursue high-level studies.”
Michael Meyer, national executive vice-president of Weizmann Science Canada, said that although 50 per cent of Weizmann students are women, few of those “end up in academia.”
To encourage women to pursue postdoctoral studies, he said, a special scholarship has been set up at Weizmann.
One recipient of that scholarship, physicist Nirit Dudovich, worked at the National Research Council in Ottawa before becoming the first female senior scientist at Weizmann, he said.
Yonath said that she spends a lot of time encouraging girls to go into science.
“I meet with girls to show them what I do, we have a camp for science lovers, and we sponsor physics tournaments,” she said. “We try to give equal opportunity to males and females. We don’t want to discriminate either positively or negatively.”
Growing up, Yonath said, she was always interested in science, and she conducted her own experiments at home.
“Once, I broke my arm trying to calculate the height of our balcony, and another time, a fire broke out when I tried to see if water moves faster than kerosene. [The problem started] when my father came outside to smoke.”
After high school and military service, she earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and master’s degree in biophysics at Hebrew University before joining Weizmann.
She also held a number of postdoctoral positions – always balancing her career and her family, she said – at such places as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University, and she has won prizes for her work, including the Israel Prize, the Wolf Prize (Israel’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize), and Columbia University’s Louis Gross Horwitz Prize.
She credits Weizmann for believing in her before she began winning prizes. “They let me work on something that might not have matured. They saw a light at the end of the tunnel.”