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MARCH 2008

L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards For Women In Science

The L’Oreal-Unesco Awards recognize one woman (a Laureate) from each of five continents for her ground-breaking achievement in science. The ceremony, held in Paris this year, is presided over by the chairman, Nobel Laureate Gunter Blobel (Nobel Prize in Medicine 1999) and Nobel Laureate Christian de Duve (Nobel Prize in Medicine 1974), Founding President of the Awards. The international jury is comprised of 18 eminent scientists.

Education Update is proud to feature the 2008 Laureates.

Lihadh Al-Gazali
United Arab Emirates-
Laureate 2008 for Africa & Arab States

“For her contributions to the characterization of inherited disorders”

Professor in Clinical Genetics and Pediatrics. Senior Consultant in Clinical Genetics. Department of Pediatrics. United Arab Emirates University, Al-Ain

Clinical genetics is a medical specialty concerned with the diagnosis and prevention of inherited conditions. Professor Lihadh Al-Gazali is a leading clinical geneticist and a pioneer of genetics research in the Arab region. For over 17 years she has worked to educate Middle Eastern populations about clinical genetics. She has defined several new syndromes and contributed to the clinical and molecular characterization of many disorders. She established a registry for monitoring birth defects for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the first registry from an Arab country to gain membership in the International Clearinghouse of Birth Defects based in Rome.

A good education was of the utmost importance in Lihadh Al-Gazali’s family. “My father was a judge in the army and my mother was an educator, very much ahead of her time. As one of the first women to go to university in Iraq in the 1930s, she was highly respected in her field and supported and guided me throughout my career. She always told me that with hard work and perseverance I could achieve anything I want —something I passed on to my two daughters and son, who are now all successful in their own right.”

Although the number of women scientists has increased since she began her career, there are still too few female role models for young women to identify with.  “Women remain under-represented and only a handful actually reaches positions of responsibility. In addition, women aspiring to be scientists are generally excluded from the male-dominated ‘networking’ that is ever-prevalent in scientific circles.”

V. Narry Kim
Republic of Korea-
Laureate 2008
for Asia-Pacific

“For elucidating the formation of a new class of RNA molecules involved in gene regulation”

School of Biological Sciences. Seoul National University

MicroRNAs are small, single-stranded RNA molecules that are naturally expressed by the cells of plants and animals. They regulate gene expression, usually by causing a developmental process to “turn off” at a necessary time point, by either inhibiting the translation or inducing the destruction of protein-coding messenger RNAs. Scientists predict there may be 1000 unique microRNAs in the genetic material of higher mammals, including several hundred in humans.

To study the molecular mechanisms of the microRNA pathway, V. Narry Kim and her group combined approaches from a range of cell biological, biochemical, and computational techniques. By identifying key processing factors for microRNA biogenesis, Professor Kim has greatly added to the current understanding of how microRNAs are created and processed in cells.

As a teenager, V. Narry Kim developed a strong interest in natural science, which her family encouraged her to develop.  “I read a book on the history of science, about the birth of philosophy, mathematics, and physics in Greece. The beauty of logic fascinated me. My father and teachers wanted me to become a doctor, but when I decided to study biology, my parents were very supportive.” Describing herself as a thinker rather than an observer, she recalls how, during her university studies, she was struck by the elegance of biology. “I realized that living organisms are not just a chaotic mixture of molecules; instead they are governed by very simple, elegant rules. I wanted to reveal the simplicity of the principles underlying the complexity of life.”

The working environment in the lab in Korea in the early 1990’s was not very friendly to women students. But things have in many ways improved significantly over the last ten years. The difficulty still remains, however, especially with childcare—which needs changes not only in Korea but also worldwide.”

Ada Yonath
Laureate 2008 for Europe

“For her structural studies of the protein biosynthesis system and its disruption by antibiotics”

Professor of Structural Biology and Director,  Helen & Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly. Weizmann Institute for Science, Rehovot

Ribosomes are responsible for the production of all proteins in living cells. Often referred to as the cell’s protein factory, they translate the genetic code into functional molecules. They receive instructions in the form of messenger RNA from the cell DNA and use them to assemble amino acids and build proteins. If the work of the ribosome is impeded, the cell dies.

Resistance to antibiotics is a serious public health concern today because it severely compromises the effectiveness of antibiotics to treat infections caused by disease-causing bacteria. Professor Yonath’s research has revealed the precise modes of action of over 20 different antibiotics that target bacterial ribosomes, and her findings have helped identify how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics.

Since the age of five, Ada Yonath has been driven by a desire to understand Nature’s secrets. At university, she studied biophysics and structural biology: “I realized these are the most powerful techniques for understanding the function and modes of operation of biomolecules, the molecules produced by living cells. Today I’m still fascinated by science, and my stimulation for divulging the principles of life has not decreased.”

Her parents placed importance on learning, and Ada Yonath was encouraged to pursue her studies, even though at a young age she also needed to help support her family.  “My father died when I was 11 years old and left my mother with me and my sister but no income, so I was needed at home. Nevertheless, my mother provided me with massive emotional support.  When I became a scientist, my mother, sister, and later on my daughter and granddaughter always supported my scientific activities, in my presence as well as in my frequent absences.”

 “For generations our society has been led to assume that there is a too big gap between having a career and raising kids. This unjustified impression is still the major reason that prevents young women from becoming scientists.”

Ana Belén Elgoyhen
Argentina-2008 Laureate for Latin America

“For her contributions to the understanding of the molecular basis of hearing”

Professor, Independent Investigator, Institute for Genetic Engineering and Molecular Biology (CONICET). University of Buenos Aires, School of Medicine Buenos Aires

Ana Belén Elgoyhen studies the neurochemical mechanisms that regulate hearing. She is best known for having identified and characterized the specialized nerve receptors in the inner ear that modulate, or “remix,” the sounds heard by the ear in a way that makes them understandable.

Her pioneering studies cleared up a long-standing mystery in auditory physiology regarding the molecular nature of these specialized nerve receptors, which researchers had been trying to identify for decades.

Her discovery opened new avenues for the identification of potential therapeutic approaches for disorders of the inner ear. It also greatly expanded scientists’ understanding of this family of neurochemical signaling proteins involved in hearing.

Ana Belén Elgoyhen has never been able to leave a puzzle unsolved.  “In high school I really enjoyed mathematics and biology, especially human physiology. I was always eager to go beyond what was already known, looking for new things to learn and understand.” She and her two sisters were encouraged to pursue a university education: “My parents always fostered us to have our own identity in this evolving world, and they considered that, for us to be able to have the tools to succeed in life, we needed a university degree.”

“My generation of women was raised to marry young and have children. While most of my friends were going out and having fun as teenagers, I was always studying.”

 A fundamental love for her work and a combative spirit have helped her remain motivated: “I’ve stayed in this career because I love what I do, there cannot be another explanation. Although I have been successful, it has been difficult, obscure and not always straightforward. I think that I am a fighter in life, and that has been key to succeeding in science.”

At one point, she wanted to find an application for the basic research she enjoyed so much.  “I love investigating for the sake of finding answers to biological problems, but I got to the point where I felt that I owed something to society. Since I was working with genes that are expressed in the inner ear, I decided to look for genes that are responsible for hearing defects.

As often happens in science, I came to the auditory field by chance. I was working at the Molecular Neurobiology Lab at the Salk Institute, studying nicotinic receptors of the central nervous system, which are involved in pathologies such as Alzheimer’s disease and tobacco addiction. I revealed a new receptor in the same family, but it had a strange structure and properties. I realized this molecule’s properties matched those of a receptor of unknown function that researchers in the auditory field had been seeking for 30 years! Without intending to, I had solved a mystery in auditory physiology.”

 “I think that the opportunities are equal for men and women. However, in general women go slower in this frantic race because we have extra work compared to men; we are scientists, we have to help support our family, we give birth to our children and raise them, and we have to run the house and family.”

Her advice to young women scientists is to work hard and collaborate with other researchers. “The key to success is hard work, intelligence, a huge cup of luck and being in the right place at the right time, surrounded by the right, good people. Nothing grandiose can be achieved in isolation.”

Elizabeth Blackburn
Laureate 2008 for North America

 “For the discovery of the nature and maintenance of chromosome ends and their roles in cancer and aging”

Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology & Physiology. Department of Biochemistry & Biophysics. University of California, San Francisco

“Telomeres are the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes in cells. Chromosomes carry the genetic information; telomeres are the buffers. They are like the tips of shoelaces. If you lose the tips, the ends start fraying. In humans, as we mature, our telomeres slowly wear down.”
With the population aging in all regions of the globe and life expectancy rising from year to year, the multi-faceted process of aging is a rich and important area of scientific inquiry. Elizabeth Blackburn has devoted her scientific career to the study of telomerase and telomeres, which are essential to protecting genetic information in the chromosomes and play a key role in aging and disease. Born in Australia, Elizabeth Blackburn earned a PhD from Cambridge University and did her postdoctoral work at Yale University.

As a child, Elizabeth Blackburn found science alluring. She was intrigued by animals and was naturally curious. “I loved science because it was a secure and fair world, a place in which you know how things stand.” In her family tree were several scientists. Hawaii’s largest native insect, the Blackburn’s sphinx moth, is named after one of her 19th century ancestors who collected butterflies. Her great-grandfather and her grandfather were geologists, and both her mother and father were family physicians.

“The encouragement I got from my mother was important in leading me to have a career.  I had the idea that women could and would do professional and important work.” Elizabeth Blackburn admired Marie Curie, whose biography she read several times, and a beautifully illustrated book about science by Jacob Bronowski. Her high school chemistry and biology teachers also strengthened her penchant for science: “They made the subjects interesting and fun, despite learning with very dry textbooks.”

Elizabeth Blackburn advises young women scientists to ask themselves: “‘What can I do that others wouldn’t do?’ Do not be afraid to ask questions and take roads off the beaten track—but always back up your decisions and research with the highest standards of rigor.”#



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