Ada Yonath won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009 for her work on the structure and function of the ribosome. Born in Jerusalem, she has spent the majority of her scientific career in Israel and is currently Director of the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly at the Weizmann Institute of Science. She is the first Israeli woman to win a Nobel Prize.
Lorena Guzman from the Chilean national newspaper, El Mercurio and I talked to Ada Yonath on Tuesday afternoon about being a woman in science, why scientific data should always be shared and the challenges and inspirations she finds in life.
LG: Do you think it’s tough to be a woman doing science?
AY: Do you think it’s tough to be a woman?
LG: In science?
AY: Do you think it’s tough to be a woman?
LG: Sometimes, yes.
AY: This is my answer. I don’t think doing science is difficult because you are a woman. What it is difficult to be a woman about, is the same for a scientist, for a business woman, for a reporter
Society does not encourage women to go into science. If they go and they do well, they will be honoured and inspire others.
LG: But the science world in the past was really a man’s club, no?
AY: I’m not sure, you know. The first Nobel Prize was given to a man and the second to Marie Curie [laughs] And she won it twice! When people say that only now women are winning Nobel Prizes, it is not correct. If you look at faculties, yes, there are not many women, but that is not because of men, it is because society does not encourage women to go into science. If they go and they do well, they will be honoured and inspire others.
LW: But there’s a conflict with, for example, being a mother, and the point at which your scientific career takes off as a women. Isn’t there?
AY: Society thinks there’s a problem.
LW: But there’s a perception at least that when you’re in your thirties and chasing your first PI position, you should be working really long hours in the lab and putting all your energy into that.
AY: There’s a perception, yes. But this is not always the truth. How about doctors? Women that want to be an MP? There are many of those. It’s long hours, sometimes the whole night. What about this? Society is not against women in medicine. There are occupations where women are paid less or that put them on tracks where they cannot be promoted. This is not just a problem for science – this is for the cashiers in the supermarket. It’s very easy to say women cannot do science because there are long hours, but this is not correct. Nurses are working long hours and nurses are women. Society is, or was, against intellect in women and the idea that women could compete in an intellectual or scientific way. It’s not that it is difficult for a woman to do science. Science is very demanding from both men and women. I didn’t feel any gender problem and I think that everyone I know from my girl friends, no one complains directly about a gender problem. Science just is demanding – you cannot enjoy science unless you are curious and usually you do well because you educate yourself and you work hard, because you like it, not because you are a woman or a man.
And one more point: for many years people laughed at me; they were very sceptical about my ideas. It was not easy to get into science for almost 15 years. People called me all sorts of names, „dreamer“ etc. I didn’t care. I just didn’t care. But when the results started to come, they said „If you were a man, they wouldn’t be so nasty.“ I think men are nasty to other men in everything that they have to progress in – whether that is science or business – as much as they are nasty to women. There are more awful stories about men trying to kick out another competitor than just a woman.
I am not a competitive character. Maybe if I was, I would have got to the structure of the ribosome earlier!
LW: Do you have female colleagues or collaborators and do you find it less competitive when you are working with them?
AY: You see I am not a competitive character. Maybe if I was, I would have got to the structure of the ribosome earlier! [laughs] And I do science by enjoying science, not by thinking whether I will be first. Of course, there is pressure, for your institute, from the funding agencies, from students, so somehow I have to give up some of my life philosophy. But in our department, until recently there were 13 faculty people, 7 of them were female -professors! The head of department was female and the head of faculty, female. And maybe I have seen more women cry because they are upset, but when men get upset they are impossible! [laughs] I think I take my department as an example that things can be different.
People ask me why there aren’t many women with Nobel Prizes in Chemistry? What can I do? We have to remember that Marie Curie got it, Dorothy Hodgkin got it. And there is this story of Rosalind Franklin, that she got missed out, but I’m not sure it was because she was female – this is the way Watson tries to describe it but I looked into it and it turns out she was stronger than a lot of the men around in her in many ways. Her admiration of them was lower than their admiration of her. And she had tough luck – they jumped into things and had better intuition but I’m sure this was because she was a woman.
LG: How many children do you have?
AY: One. I wanted many – I really wanted many – but after the first one, I had a miscarriage and it was such that I couldn’t become pregnant anymore. I didn’t think about adopting and there was no fertility treatment at that time so I’m stuck with one although I wanted many. I wanted five even, but it’s not because of my work [that I didn’t have more] – she was such an easy child.
LG: And how old were you when you had her?
AY: 28 and in the middle of my PhD and she didn’t disturb it.
LG: But being a mother and a scientist must be hard, no?
AY: No, no. It just depends how you plan your life. You think that to be a mother you need to be at home all day to clean the floor, to do the washing, to cook and wait for the child? And then when the child grows up, you tell the child „I gave everything up for you. I could have done this or that and now you just want to go drinking with your friends?“ No. I think if you love your child and you love your work, you find ways to get by. It is the quality of relationship that you have, rather than the number of hours.
LG: But I guess you had some difficult times?
AY: Yes, and before I had a family I had more difficult times.
LW: And do you think those difficult times served as a good motivator for you?
AY: No. Difficult times make you stronger. They educate you to be stronger. We were very poor, my father died, we had a mother that didn’t cook. This was much more difficult [than having a child]. They couldn’t even support me when I was 11, 12 years old when I already went to work.
LW: And did that make you more determined to do the things you wanted to do?
AY: Not more. I cannot compare because I didn’t want anything else. I think it is the love of science and love of family that makes the difference.
LG: You said before that you had a period of about 15 years of trying to convince everyone to take you seriously…
AY: I didn’t try to convince anyone! I tried to work [laughs]. I tried to get funding and to work.
LG: And what happened in that period?
AY: We published!
LG: But did you have doubts?
AY: Yes, I had lots of doubts. I had to solve things doubt by doubt.
I had lots of times climbing one Everest to find that there is a bigger Everest, but don’t you find your life like this too?
LG: And how did you deal with getting stuck with something?
AY: I look for how to get out of it. I try to use here [points to her head]. I tried to read, I tried to talk to others. I tried my best to get out of it. I had lots of times climbing one Everest to find that there is a bigger Everest, but don’t you find your life like this too?
LW: And do you ever go somewhere else for your inspiration, like another hobby – going for a walk, listening to a piece of music?
AY: Yes, this I can understand a lot. I like reading, I like swimming.I go snorkeling if I can. But not because I’m stuck, but because I enjoy them. And when I am swimming or whatever, I find I have more time to think.
LG: When you received the phone call telling you that you had won the Nobel Prize, what was your first thought?
AY: Well my granddaughter received the phone call! First it was one of the scientists in my group, and they transferred it to my cell phone and she picked it up.
LW: That’s why you’re the best grandma in the world! [All laugh]
AY: Ah, but I became the best grandma before that. Four years before that. And I still am – so it means I didn’t mess up my reputation!
LG: So what happened with the phone call?
AY: She gave it to me and there was this guy from Sweden and I was sure he was making fun of me. And then he asked „Do you agree to accept it?“ and so I said „Yes, of course.“ Even if he makes fun of me, I can agree! [laughs]. My real hot point in science, that was the result. That was internal, deep inside me. The Prize, it was nice, it acknowledges me, especially as I was the village fool for so many years.
LW: So have you ever felt like that since, that same feeling of discovery?
AY: Oh yes. I’ve had 3 or 4 moments like that but I’m already over 70 so maybe it’s not that many.
LW: So you’re still looking? You’re not just doing things for fun now?
AY: Oh no, no. I still have some problems that I want to solve.
I’m looking for the minute that I can start writing novels. There are so many stories [to write about] and stories with take-home lessons and thoughts about my experiences
LG: So do you think you’ll retire? Or just keep doing experiments?
AY: I already wanted to retire 20 years ago [laughs]. So somebody asked me earlier today „If you didn’t work, what would you do?“ and I replied that I wanted to write a novel, so I’m looking for the minute that I can start writing novels. There are so many stories [to write about] and stories with take-home lessons and thoughts about my experiences – sort of part autobiography…
LW: So who are your favourite authors?
AY: That’s a difficult question. When I was a child and interested in discoveries, the first book that made an impression on me was called „Discoveries of the World“ but it wasn’t about geography, it was about Marie Curie! [laughs] And then there is a beautiful Italian story – from the mountains in Italy to the Pyrenees, a kid goes to look for a flower with a golden heart inside for his ill mother. This made a big impression on me. I also read lots of Isreali authors that you probably haven’t heard of. And Victor Hugo and Tolstoy, I just swallowed it.
LW: Some of these seem to have the theme of discovery and persistence?
AY: Many, but not all. Recently, I have gone back to my roots and I read a lot of Israeli. Stories across life, across all human life.
Some people view education as a tool for making money or at least for making a good life, rather than understanding and digging down into something, which was my motivation.
LG: Do you think being a scientist now is very different to how it was when you started?
AY: Yes, because the level of basic knowledge is much higher but also the way to extract the basic knowledge is much easier. The distinction between what is important or not is many times dictated by the number of references, not always quality. Many students today think that their achievements are dictated by their knowledge, not by their wish to understand the processes of how things work. And I think tht is why I became a scientist, because I really wanted to understand, I had a lot of curiosity. Today, in my opinion, people are more interested in the number of papers and the way of judging people has become much more statistical. Pupils are already doing this right from the beginning. Also, very few people go into basic science, there’s a big thing about making money e.g. biotech. Some people view education as a tool for making money or at least for making a good life, rather than understanding and digging down into something, which was my motivation.
LG: And if you could have one wish before you die, what would you do or discover?
AY: Oh I don’t know. I’ll call you! [laughs] I don’t know what I will do before I die. I’m driven by my curiosity, but not by one wish. Of course, I want my family to be happy and so on, but this is too much of a slogan! [laughs]
LG: And so what direction is your curiosity taking you?
AY: I still don’t understand everything about the ribosome. I must say that the more lectures I give and the more questions that I get, the more thoughts they trigger. And also, we are now interested in the proto-ribosome, how life started. So we are trying to understand this and this really excites me, not just from the point of view of philosophy, we are trying to show it.
LG: I think the importance of interviewing a Nobel Prize winner is to try to understand that they are just human beings.
AY: But you know that there are so many people that are equal to us or better that didn’t get the prize. You cannot go round the whole world and ask “are you better than me?”
LG: And for me, to spend a week with 59 Nobel Laureates, it’s a big thing, you can’t avoid that.
LW: I think a lot of the students here have appreciated the mentoring that occurs at this meeting. Science can be tough and it is good to get some advice and to reassure yourself that you’re still on the right path.
AY: As long as it is just suggesting and not forcing. Forcing can be direct and indirect: “You do this otherwise I won’t talk to you anymore.” This is direct. Or there is: “If I was you I would do this…” This may be dangerous because what works for one project and one person, doesn’t necessarily work for another. And besides, it takes the initiative out of a person, the imagination, the possibility to search for your own ways of surviving, ingenuity, imagination, dedication. It’s like, “he/she said so, therefore I have to follow”. This doesn’t always work and when it doesn’t work, it can be dangerous and very depressing for the person.
LW: Since you’ve won a Nobel Prize, do you think people now want your opinion on everything?
AY: Yes! Yes. Unfortunately. I am asked questions on things that I have an opinion, as much as the next person, but all of a sudden it has much more influence and reporters, without being against you personally, either don’t really understand or they want to understand differently and all of a sudden I’m given a different opinion or they put together two different things and I sound stupid. As long as you want to talk about science, being a woman, my life then I am more or less in control. But if you ask me about global warming, I don’t know anything more about it than you do.
LW: And do you think scientists have a responsibility to be interested in science policy and politics?
AY: I don’t like the word responsibility because then it becomes too…administrative, too compulsory. Scientists should, in my opinion, strive to do their best science and to encourage the best science elsewhere, everywhere and this means they have to be involved somehow in science policy – if there is policy! The driving force should be excellent science and if that depends on some intervention here and then, then yes, you should.
I believe that the results of science should be fully given to the community. Fully. Absolutely.
LW: And what about communicating science both to other scientists and to the lay person?
AY: First of all, I believe that the results of science should be fully given to the community. Fully. Absolutely. And all types of competition such as who did it first and „I cannot tell him because he will copy me“ and so on – these are not arguments. Society financed this science, if not directly, then the education and the way I got there, so society should get back what I found. It is not my finding. In this, I am not very popular, I must say. I released the exact procedures we used even before we had results and people came to me and said “How come you give such accurate, correct descriptions?” and I asked whether they wouldn’t do the same and they said “No. If I had data like this I would hide it”. Society put so much into me that of course they should get it back.
And as for making contact with the layperson, I think young people, teenagers and those in their early twenties, don’t have enough exposure to science, they don’t know what it is. I myself have been working on this for many years – I give lectures at many different events and to different groups.