One giant leap for womankind – and Israel
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One giant leap for womankind – and Israel

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Ada Yonath at work in her lab at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

“This year, five women have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. Congratulations to these Nobel Prize winners who, we believe, exemplify the pioneering spirit in all of us – regardless of gender.”

-Full page New York Times advertisement for Levi’s, Oct. 18, 2009.

Ada Yonath, age 70, made history on Oct. 7, becoming the first Israeli woman to win a Nobel Prize. She grew up in an impoverished Sephardic family in Jerusalem, went on to receive her doctorate from the Weizmann Institute of Science, completed postdoctoral fellowships at Carnegie Mellon University and MIT, and returned to Weizmann to undertake her ground-breaking biochemistry work. The Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to Yonath, together with Thomas Steitz of Yale University and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, of the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology, Cambridge, U.K. “for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome.”

Ribosomes are needed by all living things – from the lowliest bacteria to the most complex plants and animals. They are the microscopic structures found in all cells that translate information encoded in the DNA into the proteins that determine the way each cell functions. The three scientists, Yonath, Steitz, and Ramakrishnan, worked for decades to decipher the intricacies of ribosome structure and how they work.

Reaction at the Weizmann Institute

Arnold and Esther Leibowitz went to Israel shortly after Yom Kippur for a golf tournament in Caesaria, not realizing that they would also be there to experience a historic moment in Israeli science. Leibowitz, a gastroenterologist from Woodcliff Lake, has been involved with the Weizmann Institute since his first visit to the Rehovot campus about five years ago. He now serves on the national board as well as the New Jersey regional board of the American Committee for Weizmann Institute of Science.

“We got the email [regarding Yonath’s Nobel Prize] and it was a chance of a lifetime to see the emotion at the Institute,” said Leibowitz. He rushed over to the Weizmann campus in Rehovot. “It was Sukkos, and all the students were on vacation. Although many professors were on vacation as well, some scientists don’t ever take a holiday.” As he toured the campus he noted that “every place we went, they were thrilled about Professor Yonath.”

Leibowitz reported that TV cameras were filming reporters from Israeli and American news agencies interviewing Yonath. “She was occupied with interviews, but her assistant took us around her laboratory,” he said. “It’s a very modest looking lab, jammed with centrifuges, vials, and test tubes.” Now Yonath’s lab is equipped with what she needs to pursue her studies, but that wasn’t always the case. “Initially she had to come to the U.S.,” Leibowitz said, “because they didn’t have ultracentrifuges [at Weizmann].”

The Leibowitzes lunched with Weizmann student Adi Natan, who is about to complete his doctoral work in physics and has had numerous postdoctoral offers from prestigious research centers in the United States. “He wants to do postdoctoral work and then come back to Weizmann, but it is very difficult to get back in, very competitive,” said Leibowitz. “I don’t think you can realize the work that’s being produced by the Weizmann Institute. There are at least four or five other [Weizmann] scientists just waiting to get the Nobel. That’s the caliber of their research.”

Leibowitz said that Weizmann’s president, Daniel Zajfman, was in San Francisco when the award was announced, “so he missed all the hoopla.” But his wife Joelle Zajfman met with the Leibowitzes and told them that the Nobel Prize “is something we’ve waited for; it was something we needed.” In honor of Yonath’s Nobel, Daniel Zajfman will speak at the inaugural gala of the New Jersey Region of ACWIS on Nov. 19 at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City.

A giant leap for womankind

Levi Strauss and Company ran a full page advertisement in the Sunday, Oct. 18, New York Times, celebrating the historic achievement of the five women who garnered 2009 Nobel Prizes: Yonath for chemistry, Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Carol W. Greider (together with Jack W. Szostak) for physiology or medicine, Herta Muller for literature, and Elinor Ostrom (together with Oliver E. Williamson) for economics. The ad was a mostly blank page, with this inscription: “This year, five women have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. Congratulations to these Nobel Prize winners who, we believe, exemplify the pioneering spirit in all of us – regardless of gender. Levi’s. Go Forth.”

“This is the year of the woman,” said Ruth Plager. “There are so many women getting Nobels this year, it’s fantastic, utterly fantastic.” Plager, who lives in Short Hills, runs a high-tech consulting firm, Zenith Bio LLC, for the biopharmaceutical industry. Yonath’s Nobel resonated particularly strongly with her, as she spent a year at Weizmann in the 1960s, as a research technician.

 

Weitzman gala to be held next month                 
The American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science New Jersey Region 2009 inaugural gala will be held on Nov. 19 at 6 p.m. in the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. Josh S. Westen, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, and Gov. Tom Kean Sr. are among the evening’s honorees. Weizmann President Daniel Zajfman and Daniel Polisar of the Shalem Center will be speakers.

Plager recalled that in the 1960s, “women had to get married to feel good about being a woman. It made no sense. A woman would go to work only if the husband didn’t make enough money. This was the way it was, and not to be challenged.”

“At that time the biggest thing I noticed at Weizmann were all these women scientists with children. They cared about different things: their work, as well as their appearance and their families. It was a real eye-opener. I thought, well, I am definitely not staying home when I got married.”

Plager (who later married and divorced) pursued a highly successful career in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, traditionally male-dominated areas. “Product management in the late ’70s was a male franchise, like banking,” said Plager. She was one of only three females hired by her company. “They would look at you with great suspicion, and when you did well they would be surprised.”

She speculated about why Israel had been decades ahead of the rest of the world in terms of women in science. “In Israel it was a necessity,” she said. “They couldn’t afford to leave the female brains behind. But it was wonderful for the women.” In addition, she pointed out, “all the women had to go into the military. That made a difference too.”

While working in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1980s, Plager reconnected with Weizmann Institute and joined the Bay Region’s branch of ACWIS. Now she serves on the New Jersey board. Plager noted that there are a number of highly successful female scientists at Weizmann who have made significant contributions to science and health.

“One of the biggest money-makers for the Institute is Copaxone, a multiple sclerosis drug,” said Plager, “and it was developed by Ruth Arnon. It has annual sales of 1.5 to 2 billion dollars. I knew Ruth Arnon when I was there in the ’60s. She was a very heimish, friendly woman,” she added.

Plager speculated about future applications of the ribosome studies from her professional perspective as a consultant to industry. “I would think you could do more than just antibiotics,” she said. “Such a basic discovery platform allows you to interpret so much. It has such an exponential effect. We don’t know what the effect will be.”

Yonath, who is a mother and grandmother, is the fourth woman ever to win the chemistry Nobel prize, the third Israeli to win that award (Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology won in 2004), and the ninth Israeli Nobel laureate. Yonath is the 29th Jewish chemistry Nobel laureate. Of more than 750 total Nobel prizes awarded since 1901, at least 163 went to Jews.

For information on Nobel prizes see, www.nobelprize.org.

Information on Jewish Nobel laureates can be found at www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org.

Information on Weizmann Institute and ACWIS can be found at www.weizmann.ac.il and www.weizmann-usa.org.

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