Ada’s work on deciphering the structure of the ribosome made her only the fourth female to receive the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Ada Yonath was born in Israel in 1939 to a poor family which shared a cramped apartment with two other families. What little income her family could earn from their shop ended when Ada's father died. At 11 years old, Ada started working to support her family while also studying at school, and finding ways to stave off hunger. Her family moved to Tel Aviv to be nearer her aunts, and it was there that Ada completed her education.
After spending her compulsory military service in the medical forces, she studied for a degree in chemistry and biochemistry and then earned her PhD at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel. After postdoctoral research in America she returned to the Weizmann Institute to establish the only protein crystallography lab in Israel, and began working on the structure of the ribosome - the part of the cell that makes proteins. After many years of work and with many collaborators around the world, she published the full structure of the ribosome in 2001.
Her research has shone light on how proteins are made in the body, which is crucial for our understanding of many diseases. With her work, chemists are able to improve their understanding of bacterial infections and design better antibiotics to treat them. In recognition of her work, Ada was jointly awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry, only the fourth woman to receive the prize.
Q: How did you first become interested in chemistry?
A: My curiosity, not in chemistry but in nature in general. I also read a book about Marie Curie so it inspired me even more. But I did all types of experiments, I was not just hooked on chemistry. Chemistry came with time.
Q: What were the main challenges for you growing up?
A: The main challenge was being hungry and helping my mother to find ways to survive the hunger. We were very poor. I was working since the age of 11, when my father died, and funded myself and helped my mother. Many jobs! I also did tutoring to get a fellowship. I was teaching three girls in my class in mathematics.
Q: What made you decide to become a researcher ?
A: I didn’t even know there was a profession called academic researcher, I was too poor to know this. It was too much of a luxury for me to think I will ask a question myself, suggest how to solve it myself and someone will pay me my salary and research. This was too much for me. When it happened I was very happy. I didn’t think about anything else. I didn’t sit and make pros and cons – it just happened.
Q: How did you balance family life and your work as a researcher?
A: I never thought about it, it just worked. I don’t have a recipe for others. It worked out. My daughter loves me, I love her. I have a granddaughter who thinks I’m the best grandmother in the world. It worked. It wasn’t easy, but I think there are many things that are not easy. As long as it is curious and fun just to love the family and to love science at the same time.
Q: How do feel working in Israel, Germany and the United States has helped shape you as a scientist?
A: Very much! It means I have learnt everything in Israel and also in other places. Different outlooks, different attitudes, different ways of funding, different human characters. Techniques of course. I think that is very important.
Q: What advice would you give students considering a career in chemistry?
A: Go after your curiosity. Find the questions you want to answer; find an important question to answer – a fundamental one. Suggest to yourself and then to others how you’re going to do it and then go for it. Try to do the best you can, not the best compared to others but to yourself. Go after your curiosity and passion!
Interview by Richard Grandison
Images © Micheline Pelletier/Corbis
Published November 2014