By Ron Bousso (AFP) – Oct 7, 2009
JERUSALEM — Ada Yonath, who became the first Israeli woman to win a Nobel on Wednesday when she was awarded the Chemistry Prize, was once so poor she could not afford books.
The 70-year-old won the prize with two US scientists for "mapping the ribosome -- one of the cell's most complex machineries -- at the atomic level," the Nobel jury said.
It marked just how far she has come since her childhood in a poor family in Jerusalem in then British-mandate Palestine.
"There was nothing in my childhood to suggest that I would reach this point, even though my parents and family have always thought there was a chance of recognition," a weeping Yonath told Israeli public radio.
She becomes the first Israeli woman to win the prestigious prize and the fourth woman to ever win the Nobel Chemistry prize, including Marie Curie, whose story inspired her to pursue science.
Yonath is the ninth Israeli ever to get the Nobel and the third to win one in chemistry.
Moments after the award was announced in Stockholm, Yonath was talking to Israeli President Shimon Peres -- himself a Nobel peace laureate -- who had called to congratulate her.
The award-winning professor from the Weizmann Institute of Science in the town of Rehovot south of Tel Aviv has devoted her career to the study of the ribosome, which is crucial in the development of new antibiotics.
Considered a pioneer of ribosome crystallography, she created the first ribosome crystals in 1980 and was the first to note that the ribosome is riddled with internal chambers, according to the US National Institutes of Health website.
"Our research spun over many years and developed in different directions... every time I thought I was facing a problem the size of the Everest only to discover there was a bigger Everest behind it," she told public radio.
"The second I cracked the structure (of the ribosome) I was very happy... really, really happy," she said.
Curious from a young age, Yonath was inspired to study science after reading about Curie.
"All my life there were experiments. It was just plain curiosity. Once I broke my arm when I fell into the garden trying to measure the height of our balcony," she told an interviewer in 2008.
"I never thought about me being a woman or not when I did science -- I was just a human being born into an extremely poor family," she once said. "We were so poor we didn't even have books."
She is a strong advocate of encouraging more women to get involved in science.
"Women make up half the population," she says. "I think the population is losing half of the human brain power by not encouraging women to go into the sciences. Women can do great things if they are encouraged to do so."
"I would like women to have the opportunity to do what is interesting to them, to go after their curiosity. And I would like the world to be open to that. I know in many places there is opposition to that."
Yonath earned her bachelor and master's degrees at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and her PhD at the Weizmann Institute.
She did post-doctoral stints at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University.
She has a daughter and lives in Israel.
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