Ada Yonath, one of just four women ever to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, told USC students last month what it takes to be a successful scientist: curiosity, passion and perseverance.
Yonath, professor of structural biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, ought to know: She received the prize in 2009 in recognition of her pioneering work studying the structure and function of the ribosome, which assembles proteins in the cell.
With a laid-back lecturing style and wild, curly gray hair whose appearance she teasingly compared to a ribosome, Yonath spoke to packed rooms at USC. She gave two presentations on campus — an in-depth scientific talk presenting genetic code and its products in a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum, and the other an inspirational discussion about how to be a scientist.
The events were hosted by the Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of Chemistry in USC Dornsife, the USC Office of the Provost and the USC Women in Science and Engineering.
“One can accomplish important, useful and appreciated work in many ways,” Yonath said. “The most important thing is how much curiosity and passion we have.
“If you really want to understand something, if you really love the feeling that you understand the subject today a little bit more than yesterday – that is the driving force.”
Prior to earning the Nobel Prize, she was working despite worldwide skepticism and at certain points watched experiments evaporate before her eyes. It was her determination to solve problems that motivated her to continue in the field.
“I really wanted to understand how ribosomes worked and to try and solve the problem by looking for another route,” she said. “I wasn’t sure whether I was going to [find the solution] but I thought I should do the best I could.”
Xiaojiang Chen, professor of biological sciences and chemistry at USC Dornsife, said, “Back then, many people thought Ada was a dreamer.”
He added that talking about solving the ribosome’s structure in the ’80s was like talking about landing on the moon in the ’20s.
Yonath, a native of Jerusalem, reminded students that being a successful scientist does not require working in the best laboratories or winning medals, but she again emphasized a passion for the work.
“When you start your life in science and immediately start thinking about prizes, then you don’t win, you might be very miserable,” she said. “If you like what you do and have the ability to do it, there is a good expectation that you will enjoy it and maybe get a Nobel Prize, but that really should not be as important as the work itself.”
Iris Dror, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in computational biology in USC Dornsife, was inspired by Yonath’s talk.
“She helps you see things in the right perspective,” Dror said. “Everyone in science experiences a few failures but it is easier not to get stuck on those failures when you are doing something that is exciting for you and that keeps you curious.”
Yonath’s advice and personal experiences also resonated with Carolina Dantas, a second-year Ph.D. student in molecular biology in USC Dornsife.
“When you hear stories like Ada Yonath’s who has worked so hard to pursue a dream just for the fact that she loves what she is doing, it inspires you to never give up,” Dantas said.
Yonath also had a word of advice for the women in the audience.
“It is possible to be a scientist and to have children,” she said, urging women studying the sciences not to give up on their dreams for a career and a family.
She spoke proudly of having made enough time to spend with her family while doggedly pursuing a scientific quest that many thought impossible.
At the end of one lecture, she showed a photograph of a framed award for: “Grama of the Year,” bestowed by her granddaughter Noa.
“I think this is my biggest prize,” she said.