Prof. Ada Yonath is a true pioneer - discovering, spearheading and constantly challenging the boundaries of what we know. Not only was she the first woman from the Middle East to win a Nobel Prize, but she was also the first woman in 45 years to win the award in Chemistry.

The sixth edition of Newton Speaks saw Dr. Ada E. Yonath - Israeli protein crystallographer who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry - take us through an engaging conversation about ribosomes and new generation antibiotics.

Born in Jerusalem in 1939 to a poor family, Yonath’s childhood was not without its challenges. However, her curiosity knew no bounds, and she grew up questioning everything she saw and experienced. A true testimony to her curiosity was her first experiment which she conducted enthusiastically at the young age of five. She set out to find the height of the ceiling of their family’s apartment by stacking the furniture in the house. The experiment was short-lived and concluded with a broken arm. But her mind refused to stop questioning and, if anything, made her more curious of the world around her.

Owing to her poor financial background and the death of her father at an early age, Yonath learned to make ends meet by working numerous odd jobs, from tutoring to cleaning chemistry labs. These years of hardship taught her to be resilient and pursue her dreams without fear. She got her bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and master’s in Biochemistry from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and soon went on to complete her PhD from the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Most of her work is centred around protein biosynthesis, which is performed by ribosomes. Also called the cell’s protein factories, ribosomes are composed of a large number of protein molecules and RNA. They are notoriously unstable and therefore their crystallization was considered impossible. Since the late 1970s, most of the scientists had already tried and failed to obtain any crystalline form from ribosomes, but Yonath decided to pursue this challenge. Many called her a dreamer, a fantasizer and even a village idiot, but she continued to pursue her unconventional idea and kept moving forward. After six years she obtained suitable crystals but then found out that they don’t survive the measurements by the X-rays. Then she pioneered a new approach that involved exposing ribosome crystals to cryo-temperature during X-ray measurement. This method, called cryo-biocrystallography, is now a standard research procedure in structural biology.

(Cryo-cooling apparatus developed by Dr. Ada Yonath)

Yonath and her colleagues made a staggering 25,000 attempts before they succeeded in creating the first ribosome crystals in 1980. Over the next 20 years, they continued to improve their technique and finally, teams at Weizmann and the Max Planck Institute in Germany – both headed by Yonath – solved, for the first time, the complete spatial structure of both subunits of a bacterial ribosome. This breakthrough discovery earned Yonath her Nobel Prize along with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz, who headed two independent groups in the same pursuit.

Her subsequent research discovered the mechanism of action of five antibiotic drugs and identified exactly how each of the antibiotics binds to the bacterial ribosome, shutting off protein production. Her findings, which have stimulated intensive research worldwide, are crucial for developing advanced antibiotics. For her exceptional work in this field, she received numerous other honours and awards throughout her career, including the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize for Biology or Biochemistry in 2005, the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize in 2007, and the Albert Einstein World Award of Science in 2008.

Just after her fascinating talk about her research, Yonath shared with the audience her latest discoveries and developments in this field, post-Nobel. The Q&A session at the end of the talk included a wide range of questions on ribosome structure, modern techniques and antibiotics resistance. Her passion for this subject was made more evident by her detailed and energetic responses to the questions. What was most striking was her willingness to say “I don’t know”, when questions fell outside her area of expertise. Given her life story and work, it is not surprising that her advice to excel in this domain is to simply “Be curious”.

Many would consider Yonath’s voice a refreshing addition to the STEM community, one which has largely been dominated by men. One prominent question asked during the event was about her opinion on the lack of women in the field of STEM. She believes that one of the reasons for this could be because women are not encouraged to become scientists. However she pushed herself to pursue her scientific career and while she was within the field, never felt a victim of gender discrimination. Her experiments and techniques were constantly questioned, not because she was a woman, but because of the skepticism that came with the feat.

(A caricature drawn by the Israeli artist MICHEL KICHKA, as a present to Ada Yonath when she won the Nobel Prize in 2009. His works can be found here-

A heartwarming moment in the talk was when she proudly presented her granddaughter’s certificate painting that said ‘The grama of the year is Ada Yonath!’. While society questions the ability of women to have a healthy home life along with a successful career, Yonath has demonstrated through her life that women do not have to choose one over the other.

Prof. Ada Yonath’s story is relevant today because of the example it sets. She has shown that some risks are worth taking even when the results are unclear, not because of the recognition it brings when it pays off, but because of the experiences gained even when it does not.

Anna Susan Cherian and Gauri Nair V.