Improving Health & Medicine

The Ada Yonath Story

Learn about the life of Prof. Ada Yonath, who overcame major challenges to become only the fourth woman in history to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Born to a poor family, little Ada’s natural intelligence and scientific curiosity got her into trouble – and, as a young student, earned her recognition. Her native talents helped her get an excellent education, while also working in restaurants and factories to support her family.

After obtaining her doctorate at the Weizmann Institute and conducting postdoc work at MIT, she returned to Weizmann to study the ribosome – tiny structures found inside every living cell. Like little machines, ribosomes build all the proteins that cells need for life: everything from hemoglobin to insulin.

When Ada started her research, world-renowned scientists had already been trying—and failing—to decipher the structure of the ribosome. To achieve this goal—namely, see the ribosome’s insides—crystals of ribosomes must first be prepared, and then irradiated by x rays. In 1980, after tens of thousands of experiments, Ada and her team successfully created the first ribosome crystals in history – proving it was possible. “People always said I was a dreamer,” she said.

The pioneering technique was rapidly adopted by labs around the world, and continues to be used today to provide vital insight into one of the most pressing medical challenges of the 21st century: antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Now, scientists everywhere are able to use Ada’s research to create more effective antibiotics.

Recognition of Ada’s major contribution to scientific progress culminated in 2009 when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, along with two other scientists who contributed to our understanding of the ribosome. As Ada received the Nobel medal in Stockholm, her daughter, granddaughter, and sister watched with pride, along with philanthropist Helen Kimmel, her longtime friend and patron.

Ada is passionate about fostering scientific collaboration between Israel and its neighbors, and about encouraging the next generation to pursue careers in science. Still excited as a child about science, she says: “It’s fun to be a scientist. Go after your curiosity, that’s the biggest thing in being a scientist, not the prizes.”