For all of the controversial statements we’ve heard in recent years about which fields are best suited to the lovelier sex, today women may rightly celebrate headlines filled with female scientists’ achievements.
Since 1895 when Alfred Nobel established the Prize to honor outstanding achievers in the fields of science, literature, peace, or medicine, 754 men have been awarded alongside 35 female laureates. While many more men than women have taken these prestigious awards, women have long held their own in the Nobel arena. Marie Curie became the first female Laureate in 1903, only two years after the Foundation’s came to be. Inasmuch as women have been involved in scientific endeavors, the Nobel Foundation has acknowledged our achievements.
Women have also contributed to the expanding Nobel Prize tradition. Czech writer and baroness Bertha von Suttner influenced Alfred Nobel to establish a Nobel Prize for Peace, which she won at its inception in 1905. Indeed, Economics remains the only Nobel field still bereft of that blessed abundance of X chromosomes.
Enter today’s women scientists. Honored lady researchers fill today’s news with their achievements. Dr. Ada E. Yonath represents the first female Israeli Nobel Laureate honored in tandem with her team, while MIT scientist JoAnne Stubbe will receive a National Medal of Science from the White House this afternoon.
Both Drs. Yonath and Stubbe work with DNA. Their work contributes to critical modern research useful not only to advancing our understanding of the basis of life itself, but also as a tool for developing needed new antibiotics.
The New York Times describes Dr. Yonath’s study:
If the sequence of lettered amino acids in the DNA forms the blueprint for life, ribosomes are the factory floor. In a news release the Swedish academy said the three, who worked independently, were being honored “for having showed what the ribosome looks like and how it functions at the atomic level.”
The ribosome research, the academy said, is being used to develop new antibiotics.
Similarly, Dr. Stubbe’s research touches the very fabric of improved quality of life for our aging population:
Stubbe’s work unraveling the mechanisms of enzymes has had significant impacts on fields ranging from cancer drug development to synthesis of biodegradable plastics.
Her studies of ribonucleotide reductases (RNRs), which play a key role in DNA copy and repair, have led to the design of a drug, gemcitabine, which is now used to treat pancreatic and other cancers. She also discovered the structure and function of bleomycin, an antibiotic used as a cancer drug.
Both women contribute lifesaving research to critical fields, and both pave the way for building greater progress in the future. By mapping portions of the human genome these women make it possible to create antibiotics immediately useful against today’s pandemics. More impressively, their research preserves the potential for future scientists to work more closely with the body.
Perhaps the most memorable controversial statements about women’s scientific capacity came from 2005 Harvard president Lawrence Summers, who claimed that “innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers.”
Innate differences, indeed. As long as women have worked outside the home women have worked in scientific fields. As long as women have sought equal opportunity women have enjoyed recognition for the scope of our achievements.
Congratulations to these and other female scientists for their contributions to humanity. Congratulations for allowing not the least of these contributions to rest in encouraging other young women who aspire to science.
At The New Agenda.