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The sciences are gender-neutral. The quality of your work and your curiosity are the keys to success.

How curiosity trumped ridicule to land a Nobel Prize

By Ada Yonath, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2009

I am not the type of person that talks about women's lives, but I can talk about my own.

From about age eight, I studied in a class that had boys and girls. In high school, I had to choose whether to concentrate on the humanities or math and science. I chose the latter.

It was an easy choice. First, these were not difficult subjects for me. Second, I liked them. Third, I felt that everything else, I could do on my own. But for science, I needed some guidance. 

Teaching class out on the balcony

I was born into an extremely poor family. My father died when I was 11. My mother was wonderful, but she didn't have the benefit of an education.

She did her best to raise me and my little sister, who was only two years old. But she could not provide everything. So essentially, from the age of 11, I was working. I had a lot of jobs.

I tutored kids in chemistry or mathematics. We had a tiny apartment, so I taught them out on the balcony.

I also cleaned stairwells, carried shopping bags home from the supermarket, and babysat people’s children. I started working at 5:00 in the morning. I also took care of my little sister.

After I finished high school, I studied to be a teacher so that I would have a profession. Having done so much tutoring, I was used to teaching.

But in science, what drove me – and still is driving me – is curiosity. I really wanted to understand.

Take paper clips, for example. Because they're made of thin wire, you can change their structure with your fingers. Once you do, even a little bit, they won’t hold papers together anymore.

Like a paper clip, nearly all of life is related to structure. I wanted to understand this better.

Don’t shoot the messenger

When I was a young scientist, DNA had already been discovered. And scientists had found that DNA was full of genes. All proteins are coded by genes. What I wanted to understand was, how do the genes express themselves? And what about the proteins made by the genes? How does this happen?

It was known already that there was an intermediary between the gene, which is DNA, and the protein, which is called mRNA or messenger RNA. We hear about mRNA today because of Covid, but at that time, it was still a mystery.

This messenger RNA, which has all the information of the gene, binds itself to a particle, called a ribosome, which is known to connect the building blocks of proteins, called amino acids, connecting one to the next, according to the instructions in the messenger RNA.

This was known, but scientists still didn’t understand how it happened. This is what I wanted to understand, and I knew I wasn't the only one. I was young, a beginner, but there were already established scientists, big professors at Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, at the Max Planck Institute, in many highly respected institutions, who wanted to understand but failed.

Like me, they reasoned that function is related to structure. And the structure had yet to be determined, it was not known – especially the structure of the machine that puts everything together, the ribosome.

To determine the structure at that time, they used a method called crystallography. It’s complicated, but the principles were well established. The starting material should be a crystal: a little body made by symmetrical operation in three dimensions.

So crystals of ribosome were needed and could not be obtained. When I declared that I wanted to do it, everybody told me I would fail like all the others.

But I had another idea about crystals of ribosomes. This was because I had a bicycle accident. The accident gave me a concussion, a serious traumatic brain injury. That kept me in bed, in the hospital and then at home, for almost half a year. During that time, I could not read science every day. So I read everything else.

Hibernate mode

I got my hands on a travel brochure from one of the airlines. This was the mid- to late 1970s, over 50 years ago. I read about a delegation that went to the North Pole to see how the bears hibernate during the winter. They go to sleep in December, then wake up in May and are able to function – but how?

In addition to studying live bears in the wild, researchers looked at the cells of dead bears, and found that, in the inner part of the cell, the ribosomes are very well organized, like blocks, one next to the other – almost like a crystal, but only one layer.

At the time, it was believed that ribosomes could not be ordered or arranged. Until that point, no one had ever done it under laboratory conditions.

I thought, “The bears barely function when they’re asleep. But when they wake up, they have to do all sorts of things.” If their ribosomes had disintegrated during their hibernation, they would not be able to function when they awoke. So that meant that nature had a system to preserve the ribosomes and keep them from disintegrating.

Ribosomes are packed very tightly. From this, I deduced that under pressure, ribosomes can be kept in ordered configuration. This was my idea, but people laughed at me.

In addition to that, I didn't really want to go to the North Pole and kill bears in order to do my research. I thought about other pressure systems. The Dead Sea is the lowest point in the world, very hot, and so salty that there’s almost no life there: no fish, no trees, nothing.

“She’s in the Dead Sea”

But there are two types of bacteria. And I thought, I will extract the ribosomes from these bacteria. These ribosomes know how to live under pressure in the sea, so they will be a good starting point.

Everybody laughed at me: “Oh, she’s in the Dead Sea, she’s in the salt water.” I ignored them. But after my colleagues and I determined the structure and function of ribosomes, two groups of very famous men – professors – copied us.

After all of it, people asked me, “Did you feel upset that people laughed at you?” Honestly, I didn't even have time to think about it. I won't tell you all the problems I encountered along the way, but the wish to understand was so strong that I just didn't pay attention to the ridicule.

Afterwards, many women told me, “If you weren’t a woman, they wouldn’t laugh at you so much. If you were a man, they would respect you more.”

Maybe, but so what? That doesn’t change anything, and you don't have to pay attention to it. The sciences are gender-neutral; this is clear. For that reason, salaries and compensation have to be the same for men and women. The quality of your work, and your innate curiosity – those are the key determinants of success.

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