Professor Ada Yonath was jointly awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She is the Martin S. and Helen Kimmel Professor of Structural Biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and is an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. She and her co-workers have carried out pioneering work in the study of the structure and function of the ribosome, which helps design more effective antibiotics. In this interview, she tells us her story, her motivation and perseverance and why the impact of scientific discoveries may not always be immediate.
“I really do not like the phrase work-life balance. I do what is needed, where it is needed, with love.”
Why should people study sciences? How can we encourage the new generation to choose to study and practise science?
Because it is interesting! We should inspire kids to be curious and discover things. I usually tell them that, for me, science is like my hobby. I work on my hobby every day. I am not sure if kids, or anybody need role models. I suppose a good way to get children into science is to talk to them in a way which appeals to their curiosity and to their natural sense of discovery. Science is fun and fascinating, intellectually rewarding and at times it may translate into applications. In some cases, the application may be immediate, while in other cases the reward may come after centuries.
In your department, several professors are women, and, at times, were the head of the department and the head of the faculty. However, this is not the norm. In many scientific departments, there are more men than women. What do you think causes that and how can we attract more women to science? If there are obstacles, how can those be overcome?
I don’t like to discuss ratios or numbers of female vs. males in science, specifically not about them being in ‘leading positions’. In principle, women interested in science should have the same fair chances at becoming researchers, and also to move up the ranks into influential positions. Some may decide to become team workers, being against the drive to be in high positions, and that is fine. Cultivating interest and excitement is needed for both genders. People often quote numbers about male/female ratios, but it should be remembered that there may be women who don’t want to be in charge, but perform fantastically, enjoy their work and satisfy their curiosity.
What do you work on, and how does it benefit humanity?
In my opinion, every new piece of information arising from research contributes to the accumulation of the mountain of human knowledge and positively impacts mankind. The discoveries may be applicable immediately or after many years. Nobody knows. Many scientific findings are not applied or implemented in exactly the same way as they were initially envisaged. For example, the invention of light bulbs that increase light intensity did not result from experiments to improve candles. They resulted from investigating electricity. So, one never knows how one’s own research might influence the world in the future.
You and your colleagues made several attempts before finally succeeding to create the first ribosome crystals in 1980. It took a long time until you could use them. Were there periods where you were close to giving up? What kept you going during those periods?
It was experiment number 29, which yielded the first crystals, and this is recorded in the 1980 notebook of Jutta Mussig in Berlin. We invented a little device made of glass, simple and inexpensive, but allowed us to examine more than a hundred different experimental conditions at a time, in a few minutes. In this way, when we reached experiment number 29, we already examined about 25,000 different conditions.
The first ribosome crystals were only the beginning of our studies, which progressed slowly through the next twenty years owing to many obstacles, which we solved in un-traditional ways. Consequently I had difficulties to explain our work and hence was described as a “dreamer”. What kept me going was my knowledge that we were progressing, although slowly. I have to admit, that there were times I myself was doubtful, but we persevered nonetheless.
What do you think is the biggest challenge we face in science?
One very big challenge is the fight against antibiotic resistant bacteria that cause severe diseases such as tuberculosis, alongside the fear that even simpler medical problems, such as open wounds, pneumonia or diarrhoea, could become fatal. Since the beginning of clinical use of antibiotics, many infectious diseases were practically eliminated. However, these are currently returning, possibly changing the situation for the worse now.
Are there people who inspired you and shaped the way you think? Do you think it is important to have a mentor and did you have one?
I cannot generalise, since everyone derives motivation and inspiration from different sources. The need for mentorship and inspiration is individual. For me, Marie Curie was an inspiring figure, and so was my mother. Although my mother was not a scientist and her education was not in the sciences, her personality, understanding, warmth and encouragement inspired me.
I did not specifically look for mentors. I only kept sight of the problems which I was eager to solve. I always had other responsibilities – first my little sister and then my daughter.
You were 28 when you gave birth to your daughter (Hagith) and you were still pursuing your PhD. How did you manage to balance your work and your private life back then?
I really do not like the phrase work-life balance. I do what is needed, where it is needed, with love.
The term ‘balance’ indicates an attempt to always ration the time dedicated to a specific aspect of life (i.e. research, taking care of my daughter, family and so on). I hate this view. This is not my way. Had my sister and daughter been unwell, my priorities would have been completely different. I would have devoted all my time to them. However, since they were healthy, and I loved them as well as my work, I found good ways to handle everything while enjoying whatever I was doing.
When you returned to the Weizmann Institute after your post-doc years in the US, you established the first biological crystallography laboratory in Israel. How come that you were honoured with such a large task? Should we empower young scientists more? What made you stay with the Weizmann Institute, despite all the lucrative offers you got?
I was not selected to establish this facility, but chose to do so because I gathered that knowing the structure of molecules is essential for understanding natural processes. It was far from being easy or trivial. If young scientists feel it is their mission to pick up large tasks which satisfy their dreams, they should be allowed to pursue such endeavours – why not!
I have stayed at the Weizmann Institute, because it has allowed me to work the way I wanted. They have even let me run a Research Unit in Hamburg, which was established by the Max Planck Society next to the international facility, DESY, that we were using for our studies, in parallel to my activities at the Weizmann Institute.
You have had a close association with William Lipscomb, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1976. How did this come about? Can you share some personal anecdotes about your time as a post-doc at MIT?
I had already heard Lipscomb deliver a guest lecture and was very impressed. I came to Boston for a year with my husband and daughter and originally wanted to work in Lipscomb’s group at Harvard University. He had accepted me based on my PhD work on collagen, the protein of the skin. However, his research funding was only for American citizens or immigrants. Since I was neither, I had to decline the position because I needed means for a baby-sitter and it was too late to apply for a fellowship.
Frank Albert Cotton, at MIT, had funding for a project on staphylococcal nuclease, where I could learn biological crystallography. Cotton was very productive, having published more than 400 research publications in his mid-forties, mainly on organometallics (chemical compounds containing metal atoms). Consequently, he felt that he deserved the Nobel Prize. He had an ongoing dispute with Lipscomb and I learned that one of them pointed out a minor error in the other’s paper. The other returned the favour in another publication! Both stopped talking to each other.
After I had been one week at MIT, I found out that there was no course on protein structures, but then discovered that Lipscomb was lecturing a course at Harvard. I found out that as long as I did not want any credit evidence, I could listen in. I decided to attend this course despite the knowing that Cotton would not like it. In the first lecture, Lipscomb explained the implications of the structure of DNA and announced that the next lecture would be devoted to collagen and pointed at the paper describing my PhD thesis. He said it was ground-breaking work.
The next week, the lecture was on collagen and he explained my work and the structure better than I could, but made a minor mistake. At the end of the lecture, when I pointed it out to him he enquired why did I read the work so carefully. I had to tell him that I was the author and we eventually became very good friends. For example, when he had guests who wanted to see Cotton’s facilities, I mediated in-between.
When you won the Nobel Prize your work was advertised a lot. Does the attention around those prizes motivate young people to go into science? And did your life change after becoming a Nobel Laureate?
Of course prizes raise the profile of the winner’s research. I did not work for it. In fact, it was pretty unexpected. My personal life has not changed even in the slightest after receiving the prize. I still have the same friends, the same family, the same lab and the same hobbies. I still read, swim and attend concerts. My interaction with the media has increased, and I have more possibilities to meet and engage with young students and children.
The latter makes me happy and I enjoy that I can excite youngsters, as in the London International Youth Science Forum (LIYSF). Surely I love this aspect much more than the interactions with the media though, to be honest.
More information on Professor Ada Yonath and her research can be found here.