Erna Hamburger Prize awarded to a remarkable chemist

© Weizmann Institute of Science

© Weizmann Institute of Science

The EPFL-WISH Foundation will award its Erna Hamburger Prize today, to acknowledge a distinguished career by a woman. The prize, which is being awarded for the sixth consecutive year, honors Ada Yonath – joint winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2009 – for her research into a key element of living things: the ribosome.

The Women in Science and Humanities (WISH) Foundation of EPFL awards the Erna Hamburger Prize annually as a tribute to the first female professor at a Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The prize aims to promote excellence by women and is awarded each year to a distinguished female scientist. This year’s prize will be presented to Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute, Israel, on Tuesday, 22 March. Professor Yonath is a highly colorful character, whose scientific career is the fruit of many years of hard work.

The award-winning scientist’s research focuses on the genetic code. She identified the molecular structure of the ribosome, the part of the cell that decodes RNA to determine which proteins need to be produced. This process is a key element of living things, as proteins synthesized in this way ensure that cells function properly.

“I’ve never been a man!”

For these discoveries, Ada Yonath shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2009 with two men; Thomas Seitz and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. When asked whether it’s more difficult for a woman to acquire scientific legitimacy, she replied – with characteristic frankness – “I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never been a man!” On the subject of the Erna Hamburger Prize, she added: “All the awards I’ve won have been for the discoveries themselves, and not because I am a woman. However, I would be delighted to see more women working in science, and I hope that my awards will inspire and encourage young scientists.”

In addition to its awards, the WISH Foundation funds posts, provides grants to individuals and organizes coaching sessions. It was created in 2006 on the initiative of professors at the School, for the purpose of promoting women’s careers. By providing various solutions, it aims to help women pursue scientific careers after their studies. Hardly one professor in ten is female.


Author: Nicolas Guérin

Source: EPFL