The woman who won the Nobel with Ramakrishnan
Narayani Ganesh, TNN Feb 13, 2011
As a Max Planck research scholar in Germany in the early 80s, Ada Yonath either slept in her car or in the laboratory. She wasn't poorly paid, just obsessed . It was a spell that lasted seven years. Yonath found somewhere to live only when her mother announced plans to visit!
The hard work paid off. In 2009, the septuagenarian professor at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, became the first Israeli woman to win the Nobel Prize. She was also the first woman in 45 years to win it for chemistry. Unsurprisingly , India did not notice; its eyes were fixed on Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, the Indian-American microbiologist from Cambridge, who won the Nobel alongside Yonath and Thomas A Steitz of Yale.
And yet, Yonath's story and passion — is important for everyone, including Indians, to understand why the world is what it is and what it yet could be. Chemistry is the basis of all science, Yonath told TOI on a recent visit to Delhi. "The world is made of compounds; they are made by atoms that are connected together and chemistry can be used to explain biological processes and molecules — we use physics and high level mathematical methods in our research but the answers are from chemistry," she said.
This is not bombast. Yonath knows what she's talking about. The chemistry Nobel, shared three-ways , was awarded for the detailed mapping of the ribosome's complex structure and function. For those who have forgotten what a ribosome is, it is a cell component and makes protein from amino acids. Crucial, in other words, to life as we know it.
Yonath and her fellow Prize-winners ' research is potentially all about miracles. All living organisms, including bacteria, have ribosomes and antibiotics are meant to target ribosomes in harmful bacteria rather than in their human hosts. The ribosome's detailed mapping by Yonath-Ramakrishnan-Steitz could help develop better antibiotics to treat diseases like tuberculosis.
Yonath is not shy to explain the significance of their research. "It has implications for every infectious disease made by bacteria, including tuberculosis," she says.
But the starting point, Yonath's eureka moment , was relatively low key. She was convalescing after a head injury and idly started to wonder about the winter sleep of polar bears and how they resumed active lives after the long period of inactivity. How, she asked herself , did protein manufacture resume? Clearly , the bears' ribosomes lay dormant but "woke up" on cue. "This led me to believe that the ribosomes had to be packed in an orderly fashion inside the inner membrane of the cells... they were packed like apples, the outer layer protecting the inner . The conditions could be recreated for an orderly assembly of ribosomes."
Like Ramakrishnan, her fellow Prize-winner , Yonath insists on the importance of science itself rather than the celebrity scientist. "People should go and enjoy science if they enjoy it and if they are really curious; any other reason is not good enough. I take science as a fun game; I enjoy it," she declares.
But what of all those years of sleeping in her car? Yonath explains it as an important part of the research process. "The car was important because I used to drive miles to get my crystals analyzed — I did try sending them by air but they would get destroyed before they reached the lab as they have to be handled with care. And the trains were infrequent!"
So what drove her to excel? "Ha!" she exclaims . "I say the concussion did it! I was crazy!" referring to the head injury she had more than 30 years ago.
Life of polar bears proved spark for Nobel laureate Ada Yonath
Express News Service Tue Feb 01 2011
New Delhi : Israeli Nobel laureate Ada Yonath, who won the award in Chemistry last year, along with Indian scientist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A Teitz, for her studies on the crystal structure and function of the ribosome, said the spark behind her work came from reading about the life of polar bears.
“I got some reading time due to an injury and luckily I happened to read about about how these creatures hibernate during the extreme cold. When (they) wake up, they have to go back to activities of normal life. This means they need additional proteins, which translates into ribosomes that make the proteins. This led me to believe that the ribosomes had to be packed in an orderly fashion inside the inner membrane of the cells, or else they would have disappeared,” she said.
Yonath dedicated her lecture during the first academic session of the new year at the AIIMS to the “amazing nature of the ribosome”. The most prominent use of her studies, she said, could be in the area of growing antibiotic resistance.
The 71-year-old professor, who enthralled the audience with her oratory skills, introduced the concept by talking of eminent personalities like Kafka and Orwell, who lost their lives at relatively young ages from infectious diseases.
Describing life after winning the Nobel, Yonath showed pictures of a popular fair in Israel, called the Puirm carnival, where neckpieces and wigs in the shape of ribosomes were displayed.
Yonath said there was a need for youngsters to lose their aversion to science. “You can take care of your family even if you are a scientist. People hate the profession, saying there is no money and involves sleeping in labs,” she said. After she won the Nobel, she said she took it upon herself to go to schools in her country to spread awareness about science.
“Channel 1, a local media channel in Israel conducted polls among youngsters opting for science before and after I won the prize and found that the numbers had doubled,” she said.
On her fifth trip to India, the scientists spoke about her experiences with her “rival” and iconic Indian scientist Dr G M Ramchandran. “He was tarvelling with his wife in Israel in 1966 when I was a student, and he came to visit me,” she said.
She “is glad” she did not follow his ideas then. Over 10 years later, during a New York state meeting, after her crystallisation work was complete, Dr Ramachandran stood up to say ‘I am sorry I was wrong’, she recalled. “He was strong enough to do that. He was a genius according to me, though he was my rival. I am so happy that after his death, his concept was also proven right, and now we are both correct,” she said.
Ada Yonath, the first Israeli woman to win a Nobel
October 07, 2009
Jerusalem: Ada Yonath, who became the first Israeli woman to win a Nobel on Wednesday when she was awarded the Chemistry Prize, was once so poor she could not afford books.
The 70-year-old won the prize with two US scientists for "mapping the ribosome -- one of the cell`s most complex machineries -- at the atomic level," the Nobel jury said.It marked just how far she has come since her childhood in a poor family in Jerusalem in then British-mandate Palestine.
"There was nothing in my childhood to suggest that I would reach this point, even though my parents and family have always thought there was a chance of recognition," a weeping Yonath told Israeli public radio.
She becomes the first Israeli woman to win the prestigious prize and the fourth woman to ever win the Nobel Chemistry prize, including Marie Curie, whose story inspired her to pursue science.
Yonath is the ninth Israeli ever to get the Nobel and the third to win one in chemistry.
Moments after the award was announced in Stockholm, Yonath was talking to Israeli President Shimon Peres -- himself a Nobel peace laureate -- who had called to congratulate her.
The award-winning professor from the Weizmann Institute of Science in the town of Rehovot south of Tel Aviv has devoted her career to the study of the ribosome, which is crucial in the development of new antibiotics.
Considered a pioneer of ribosome crystallography, she created the first ribosome crystals in 1980 and was the first to note that the ribosome is riddled with internal chambers, according to the US National Institutes of Health website.
"Our research spun over many years and developed in different directions... every time I thought I was facing a problem the size of the Everest only to discover there was a bigger Everest behind it," she told public radio.
"The second I cracked the structure (of the ribosome) I was very happy... really, really happy," she said.
Curious from a young age, Yonath was inspired to study science after reading about Curie.
"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," she told an interviewer in 2008.
"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," she once said. "We were so poor we didn`t even have books."
She is a strong advocate of encouraging more women to get involved in science.
"Women make up half the population," she says. "I think the population is losing half of the human brain power by not encouraging women to go into the sciences. Women can do great things if they are encouraged to do so."
"I would like women 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."