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Oxford University Chabad Society Honours Nobel Prize winner Professor Ada Yonath

Thursday, 15 July, 2010 - 9:43 am

SAM_1264.JPGOxford University Chabad Society had this past Tuesday the honour of hosting Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, Professor Ada Yonath, who discovered the structure of Ribosomes - the cell’s protein factories. Her findings are crucial for developing advanced antibiotics.

 

Professor Yonath was invited by Rabbi Eli Brackman, director of the Oxford University Chabad Society, who commended her for her achievements, and introduced by distinguished scientist, Sir Walter Bodmer, former Master of Hertford College, Oxford University, and friend of the OU Chabad Society.

 

The talk took place at the Slager Jewish student centre and attracted about a hundred students and faculty, despite vacation period at Oxford.

 

Professor Yonath delivered a fascinating overview about her upbringing in Jerusalem and her life story.

 

Yonath was born in 1939 in Meah Shearim in Jerusalem, into a poor family, her father was a rabbi and she said that her first eleven years of her life, as an only daughter, were her most difficult. She said that the difficulties she faced and burden she carried after her father passed away made all challenges she had in her work later on in her life pale in significance. Her science was easy compared to her childhood years, she said, which to a large degree she credits for giving her the courage and tenacity to take on challenges that many ridiculed her for and predicted her failure.

 

She said that at five years old, her teacher already told her that she should learn mathematics and science, as she was continuously doing experiments. She lived in a tiny apartment, and the only space she had to play was on the balcony.

 

SAM_1275.JPGShe recalled that at five years old she tried to measure the height from the floor to the ceiling of the balcony. When climbing on a chair on a table to reach the ceiling to capture its height she fell and broke her arm. She had a cast for a long period, as evident in pictures of her at that time. She intimated that that was one experiment she never completed, despite returning many years later to be filmed about her childhood there.

 

Yonath said that people called her a dreamer and even when she made her discovery, she was not believed. She said that she was ridiculed for fifteen years for her work.

 

By the late 1970s, she said, top scientific teams around the world had already tried and failed to get the complex structures of protein and RNA (Ribonucleic acid) to take on a crystalline form that could be studied.

 

Dreamer or not, it was hard work that brought results: Yonath and colleagues made a staggering 25,000 attempts before they succeeded in creating the first ribosome crystals, in 1980. And their work was just beginning.

 

Over the next 20 years, Yonath continued to improve the technique. In 2000, teams at Weizmann and the Max Planck Institute in Hamburg, Germany - both headed by Yonath - solved, for the first time, the complete spatial structure of both subunits of a bacterial ribosome.

 

Science magazine counted this achievement among the ten most important scientific developments of that year. The next year, Yonath's teams revealed exactly how certain antibiotics are able to eliminate pathogenic bacteria by binding to their ribosomes, preventing them from producing crucial proteins.

 

Yonath's studies, which have stimulated intensive research worldwide, have now gone beyond the basic structure. She has revealed in detail how the genetic information is decoded, how the ribosome's inherent flexibility contributes to antibiotic selectivity and the secrets of cross-resistance to various antibiotic families. Her findings are crucial for developing advanced antibiotics.

 

A student asked her whether, after many scientists thought she was wasting her time, she ever felt disheartened or had doubts about what she was doing, she responded that she was accustomed to difficulties from her childhood and nothing could deter her in doing what she enjoyed and wanted to do.

 

When asked about her ambition to achieve a major discovery, she explained that she never intended to achieve any thing; she merely wanted to do the research, even though many had done it before and failed. She didn’t have in mind necessarily to achieve anything beyond anyone else. She was happy to do the work and enjoy the research itself, which she found stimulating and exciting.

 

As the first Israeli woman to win a Nobel prize, Ada was asked whether she ever felt discrimination as a woman trying to succeed as a scientist in Israel. She said that she had never felt any discrimination although it is hard to confirm, as she has never been a man to be able to compare.

 

When asked about the debate between science and religion, she said that she believes there is plenty of room for faith, as there is so much that cannot be understood, despite major advances in science. She does not think in any event there is any conflict between science and faith.

 

When asked about the application of her discovery, she said that the discovery itself is extremely important for advancement of knowledge and, in addition, she believes that being able to understand the structure of the Ribosomes, will substantially help scientists find a cure for cancer.

 

At the Weizmann Institute, Yonath is the incumbent of the Martin S. and Helen Kimmel Professorial Chair.

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