Of decoding ribosomes and winning the Nobel

Nobel Laureate (Chemistry 2009) Ada E. Yonath addressing presspersons in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday.– Photo: S. Mahinsha  

Along with titles such as ‘dreamer,’ she also garnered distasteful tags such as the ‘village fool’ and a ‘liar’ when she aired her ambitious plans to determine the elusive structure of a cellular component called ribosomes.

Despite the incredulous responses from senior scientists, Israeli scientist Ada E. Yonath was hardly shaken. During the mid-1980s, her tireless pursuit paid off and resulted in “one of the rare ‘Eureka!’ moments,” as she describes in her brief autobiographical account, and the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009.

Ms. Yonath is in the city to participate in the National Crystallography Colloquium, organised by the Kerala State Council for Science, Technology, and Environment.

Speaking to presspersons, the Nobel laureate recounted her struggles as a child born to an underprivileged family in Jerusalem. Her father passed away when she was 11 and she said, at one point in time, she was juggling multiple jobs and her education to support her family. “It was much more difficult than tackling any scientific problem. Maybe this is what gave me some power and the will to persist despite the daunting challenges I was faced with once I entered the field,” she said.

Respect for knowledge

Queried as to how Israel, being such a tiny nation, was home to ten Nobel prize winners, Ms. Yonath responded that a common characteristic of the citizens of Israel was that there existed a profound respect for knowledge. On state support, she said the government did provide funds, “but their support is not outstanding.” Much of their impetus was for research and development and this did not imply the basic sciences.

She lamented that over the past few decades, the respect for science had dwindled to make way for more profit-making endeavours. But she was glad that international collaborations had flourished in recent years. It was now more open and the benefits went beyond gender, geography, or government, she said, adding that the beauty of basic sciences was that there was no end in sight for their research potential.

“You may find something today but that paves way for more questions to be asked by the day,” she said.

She praised the basic sciences for the many bonuses they surprised her with.

“I started off trying to understand what the instructions of the genetic code were but I wound up understanding the function and resistance of half the useful antibiotics in the world. I am even in a position to suggest ways to improve them. A scientific finding may not seem so significant one day, but in time, human beings will benefit greatly from each result,” she said.