A lesson from Ada Yonath, the legendary Nobel Prize laureate

Ran YI
17, 2019




Ada Yonath is an Israeli scientist best known for her pioneering work on the structure and function of the ribosome.


Born in Jerusalem in 1939, Dr. Yonath obtained her bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in chemistry at the Hebrew University in 1962 and 1965. Later she earned her Ph.D. degree in X-ray crystallography from the Weizmann Institute of Science. During 1968-1970, she was a postdoctoral student at Carnegie-Mellon and MIT, USA. Soon after that, she set up Israel’s first-ever protein crystallography lab in 1970, which was the only one in the country for almost a decade. In the 1980s, she blazed a trail to elucidate the structure of the ribosome – the protein factory of all cells, which translates the genetic instructions and forms according to it the protein. In her respectful lifelong career, she has accomplished also the modes of action of antibiotics and was awarded a long list of awards and honors. In summary, she contributed enormously to the advance of scientific research and the progress of humanity. She is deservedly called the Ms. Curie of Israel.


Quick Note


The ribosome is the cell organelle that functions as an amazing molecular-machine for making proteins. Ribosomes are composed of specific special proteins and nucleic acids. The TRANSLATION of information and the bonding of AMINO ACIDS are at the heart of the protein production process. All ribosomes are formed from two subunits locking together, functions to:

(1) Translate encoded information from the cell nucleus provided by messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA),

(2) Link together amino acids selected and collected from the cytoplasm by transfer ribonucleic acid (tRNA). and,

(3) Export the polypeptide produced to the cell as functional proteins.


A wise and fabulous lady with a curving silver hair, she is a scientist with a kaleidoscope of life stories: who once had to tutor young kids, clean the floor,  make sandwiches, work as a teller and pick up any jobs she could manage to make a living; who studied the “most challenging” discipline – chemistry who once doubted if she could even make it amidst the loud noise of skepticism in her research…but time has told us: she finally made it! Standing on the pinnacle of international chemical studies.


On 17 September, this legendary lady, the honorable 2009 Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry, the marvelous Ada Yonath is invited to give us a talk at the Master Class series in the picturesque Westlake University. Many of us may start to wonder, what did this exceptional lady have to say? Let’s take a deeper look.


New in Town


For many, Westlake University is a tantalizing mystery. In its short period, the university celebrates numerous memorable milestones and brings in hundreds of outstanding scientists and over 300 promising doctoral students. Lured by the curiosity, Ada decided to take a closer look at it herself.


“The Westlake University I heard of is a very special university. It is an excellent university that nourishes only a niche of thriving young talents in science and engineering with high standard.” Exclaimed by Ada on her first impression on the university following her first step in the beautiful campus.


Invited by Professor Shi, who is also the host of the master class, Ada also shares with us her knowledge of this unique figure in China’s science and research landscape. “This is the first time I met Professor Shi in person, but I have been following his work for a long time because his research is not only personally relevant to me but also scientifically advanced and thought-provoking. Some of my close friends’ research interests complement the areas Professor Shi is well-known for, and his work is highly recognized.”


My Best Advice



“Many people ask for my advice on how to perform their work and become recognized after I received the Nobel Prize. My only advice is, “Do not look for advice.” Dr. Yonath lightens up the afternoon talk with her featured cheerful tone and a heart-warming smile. “Do what your heart tells you. Everyone starts uniquely. They land in different walks of life. And also, there are individual preferences, strengths, and interests when it comes to science and research.”


As the adage goes, one should be the best judge of their situations, rights, and interests. But the essence of all scientific work is curiosity. “If you start with an ounce of curiosity, then you may end up with an abundance of surprising findings, which is not only impressive but also unexpected.”


Good Luck and Have Fun



Just a few days ago, Professor Shi reckoned in the opening ceremony of 2019 cohorts that science and research can be tough down the road and one must be resilient in the face of stumbles and falls. Mirroring the same ethos, Ada tells us, “Indeed, science and research can be tough, but it is also great fun. There are tough moments and head-scratching challenges from time to time. But still, you can always find joys along the way.


Speaking of trials and errors, we are deeply moved and enlightened by her upstarting headwinds in her early days. “in the most important experiments, which should be opening the way for data collection, we exposed to X-rays a crystal, and it decayed almost immediately. We repeated this experiment with 100 crystals in all available synchronism and got the same depressing result. This way we “killed” 100 crystals, which were grown in 6 years. Then I almost terminated the project, but instead, we introduced a new, highly unexpected, method in data collection, which became almost immediately the way all worldwide experiments and yielded over 80000 new structures of novel and/or medically important materials.


Start with an inquisitive mind, and never be scared off by flips and flops, you will see pitfalls in a new light, as a rewarding path to new ideas and fresh insights. These drawbacks may lead to remarkable discovery and valuable knowledge, therefore one should be bold to venture and advance in findings and see them flourish.


Beyond the Honor


For many people, the Nobel Prize is seemingly a glorious achievement. For some who have accomplished it in their lifelong career like Ada, the Prize is not the end. For her, the discovery is her main excitement. Also, scientific research itself is an infinite quest that seeds from her eagerness to understand the building block of life and gets nourished by her driver to gain a little bit more clarity and understanding with each passing day.


Speaking of changes before and after the Nobel Prize, the positive influence of her winning the Prize is countless, among which the most noteworthy impact is to inspire young people to be interested in relevant scientific discoveries.


“Getting the Nobel Prize is patently exciting. It illuminates the secrets of life to more people. But still, the biggest thrill for me is not the moment I received the honor but the eureka moment that we finally made it. Twenty years of work and dedication, there were doubts, noises, and questions. Despite all that, we broke a path through. And that is the most breathtaking moment, as we are overwhelmed by the joy of discovery. The prize is a thankful recognition of my work. But as a scientist, the curiosity, the enthusiasm, and the aspiration to understand more are what is keeping me moving forward.”


The Grandma of the Year


Science is fun. Likewise, scientists should have fun. Apart from her work, Ada has many hobbies, snorkeling, swimming, reading, and music, to name but a few. These hobbies keep the door open and bring in refreshing idea light bulbs. first-ever


In addition to her accomplishment as a scientist, she is also most remembered by the title “grandma of the year”. Interesting, she got this title three years before receiving the Nobel Prize, and her beloved grand-daughter as a heartfelt thank-you note for Ada’s time out of her incredibly busy work schedule to be with her family. Then she said that she will remove it from the “prize wall” once Ada will not deserve this anymore. It is still there. Also, one of the best artists in Israel, Michell Kishka, drew her portrait with her curly hair and called it “head full of ribosomes”.


Speaking of her next step, Ada tells us she has dreams about for a vacation in Fiji or Sinai, for enjoying snorkeling and swimming. After all, we never know what life holds in store for us. Keep on looking, you will find out that there is always more to come.