The 2009 Nobel Prize winners have just been announced. Most years, winners have all been men. A few years there was one woman, a couple had 2 women, and in 1999, three women were given the honor: one each for the categories of Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace. This year, there were 5 women in a total of 4 categories:
Physiology or Medicine: Elizabeth Blackburn & Carol Greider
Chemistry: Ada Yonath (4th woman to win Nobel in Chemistry, 1st since 1964)
Economics: Elinor Ostrom (1st woman to receive the Nobel in Economics)
Literature: Herta Müller
I listened to some of the taped phone interviews given by each winner shortly after they heard the news. During the interviews of Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, who won for their findings related to telomers and the enzyme telomerase, were each asked why there were so many women in that field. Dr. Blackburn started by saying that actually the ratio of women to men in biology was roughly the same as the biological ratio (roughly 50/50). It was the other fields that were out of balance. Both Blackburn and Greider said that the presence of woman was effectively a virtuous cycle, i.e., women professors had more women students and post-docs. Greider added that one medical scientist, Dr. Joe Gall, had been supportive of women in his lab & that had a “jackpot effect”. The women he supported attracted other women into the field. In research as in business- women role models are beacons to other women, bringing them into professions that might otherwise seem too far out of reach.
Dr. Yonath said her interest in studying the structure of ribosomes (for which she was awarded the Nobel in Chemistry) was triggered by her reading a book on the physiology of bears hibernating in the Arctic region. While doing her research, she was repeatedly told it couldn’t be done. Her persistence in the face of opposition, investing years of her life, resulted in knowledge that may help all of us combat disease.
Their stories touch on several key elements for innovation: collaboration, support, persistence, and courage. Congratulations to all 13 winners of this year’s Nobel prizes.