It’s a rare privilege to hear a Nobel Prize winner speak, and Professor Ada Yonath, the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, delighted all who heard her in Sydney today.
She is the first Israeli woman to win a Nobel Prize and the 9th Israeli prize winner including 3 in chemistry. She grew up in a poor family in Jerusalem, but she had books at home, including an influential one about Marie Curie, the first woman Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry. She conducted much of her lifetime work based on understanding the structure and function of the cell ribosome using crystallography.
She worked at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovoth, and collaborated with the Max Planck Institute in Germany, elsewhere in Europe and the U.S, and arranged for some experiments in space with NASA.
Her talk today was entitled “Everest, Polar Bears and Ribosomes” and she weaved the 3 themes together in a masterful way. Everest represented the peaks and passion interspersed with the challenges, doubts and setbacks. The polar bear referred to her lateral thinking in realising that polar bears in their period of hibernation are able to pack their ribosomes in an orderly manner. In a similar tangential way, she used her knowledge of the behaviour of specific bacteria in the Dead Sea to further her work. A major breakthrough occurred when her experiments showed that ribosomes could be stabilised at very cold temperatures.
Ribosomes are crucial cell factories in producing protein, and Prof Yonath used her work to understand how antibiotics can target ribosomes of bacteria. She likened the specific targeting of antibiotics for ribosomes to the story of David’s pebble targeted at and striking Goliath’s forehead. Her humour and sense of humanity and family shone throughout her talk… she proudly recalled that her granddaughter at the age of 5, invited her to kindergarten to explain about ribosomes.
Prof Yonath described the direct relevance of her basic science work by pointing out that the earlier development of antibiotics may have saved the lives of those who died prematurely of infection, such as George Orwell, Franz Kafka, Mozart and Chopin.
She closed with a quote from Henry Moore: “The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.”
Prof Yonath is an inspiration to people of all ages, and a wonderful ambassador for Israel and for science.