Ada Yonath: The Birth of a Scientist -The Toast

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Alexis Coe’s past essays on women’s history for The Toast can be found here. Most recently: Zinaida Portnova: Young Avenger.

As Nancy Hopkins, one of the professors who initiated the study, put it in an online forum: “I have found that even when women win the Nobel Prize, someone is bound to tell me they did not deserve it, or the discovery was really made by a man, or the important result was made by a man, or the woman really isn’t that smart. This is what discrimination looks like in 2011.” —Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?

At age five, Ada E. Yonath began conducting her own experiments. She lacked tools to measure the height of the balcony, so she gathered all of the light furniture she could find, using her tiny body to drag chairs and stools outside. She stacked them every which way, but the pile was still too short. Yonath had few options left, and she was, after all, a knowable height. She would use her own body to reach the ceiling, scaling her unstable mess of furniture in the name of scientific inquiry. Before she could reach the top, she fell off and broke her arm.

Reflecting on the incident, she has bemoaned the inconclusive experiment not for what she learned, but for what she didn’t: the current tenants remodeled, altering the height of the ceiling.

She was born to Hillel and Esther Lifshitz in 1939, Zionist Jews from Poland who could barely afford the one room they rented in a cramped Jerusalem apartment shared by two other families. Her father was constantly ill, and unable to work. He was a rabbi, and her mother had been trained in “women household skills.” They lacked a formal education, but knew their bright young daughter needed a greater challenge than the local religious schools offered. They managed to place her in Beit Hakerem, a prestigious, secular grammar school.

By the time Yonath turned 11, her father died. Her newly widowed mother was also ill, and struggled to take care of herself, let alone Yonath and her new baby sister. She came to rely on her eldest daughter for support, and, more importantly, a supplemental income. In addition to school, Yonath cleaned, babysat and tutored whenever she could, but it was never enough. They moved to Tel Aviv a year later, to be closer to her mother’s family.

Yonath spent her compulsory year in the Israeli army working in a top secret office of the Medical Forces, where she gained clinical experience. From there, she went straight to university, then graduate school, eventually completing her post-doc research on proteins at the Mellon Institute in Pittsburg and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the 1970s, she began working at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel. She would spend the next two decades there, trying to determine the three-dimensional structure of ribosomes, the protein factory within cells. She has described her research as being “met with reactions of disbelief and even ridicule in the international scientific community.”

She made strides, developing an experimental system based on ribosomes procured from the Dead Sea, which yielded the diffraction indications she needed to move forward. Her colleagues continued to doubt her, and her reputation suffered. They called her a dreamer at best, the village fool at worst.

But that was the least of her concerns. In 2011, she told the India Times that science was far easier than simply surviving. She always could do more research and conduct additional experiments, which she still enjoyed more than anything else. She found the process to be far less demanding than hunger, an inflexible state.

25,000 attempts later, she and her colleagues created the first ribosome crystals.

In 2009, Yonath became the first Israeli woman to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Under 50 women have won Nobel Prizes since its inception in 1895, as compared to 807 men.

Yonath’s country has since embraced her scientific contributions, as well as her hair. She has inspired a pro-curly hair movement in Israel. During her banquet speech in Sweden, she explained that a head full of undulating locks is called “ROSH MALE RIBOSIN” in Hebrew, meaning head full of ribosomes.

Alexis Coe is The Toast's history correspondent. She holds a master's degree in American women's political history, and was a research curator at the New York Public Library. Alexis is also a columnist at The Awl, and has contributed to The Atlantic, Slate, the Paris Review Daily, and many others. Her first book, Alice+Freda Forever, will be published on October 7th. Follow her @alexis_coe.

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