Being a woman in science isn't easy: Nobel Laureate Ada Yonath

Being a woman in science isn't easy: Nobel Laureate Ada Yonath
Breaking barriers in science was no easy feat for Yonath who hails from a very humble background. Photo: AFP

Lindau (Germany): Israeli crystallographer Ada Yonath - whose pioneering work on the structure of the ribosome won her the Nobel Prize in 2009 - has one advice for women struggling to make a mark in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM): Forget what society thinks and go after what you want.

At the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureates meeting here, the 80-year-old scientist admitted that it isn't easy being a woman scientist.

"Science is very demanding. It isn't easy being a woman in science. While at least 40 per cent students in my classes at school and university were women, the number was much lower when I was pursuing higher studies in science. But my mother was my pillar of strength and always told me to follow my dreams," Yonath said.

While, theoretically there is nothing holding women back, STEM industries remain male dominated arenas.

A UNESCO report found that only 35 per cent of STEM students in higher education globally are women, and differences are observed within STEM disciplines.

For example, only three per cent of female students in higher education choose information and communication technologies (ICT) studies, the report said.

This gender disparity is alarming, especially as STEM careers are often referred to as the jobs of the future, driving innovation, social well-being, inclusive growth and sustainable development.

Breaking barriers in science was no easy feat for Yonath who hails from a very humble background.

"My father died when I was young, leaving us very poor," said Yonath who is associated with of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

However, Yonath's family knew at an early age that her academic future would be bright.

"I was good with science but I actually wanted to be a writer. I used to fantasise a lot and wanted to write books. It was another thing that I could not write at all, the septuagenarian, who has been to India many times, chuckled.

According to a 2018 study published in the journal Psychological Science, the under-representation of girls and women in STEM fields is a continual concern for social scientists and policymakers.

Yonath was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry jointly with India-born Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A Steitz for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome - the cell's machinery for churning out proteins from the genetic code.

"Winning the Nobel Prize was great, but the more important thing was the result we had got. It was overwhelming," Yonath said.

"There are many people who have done fantastic science; many better than me, but there are only three prizes for each category. It is not possible for everyone to receive it," she added.

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