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Science Careers Blog

October 14, 2009

Women and this year's Nobel Prizes

Monday's announcement of the Nobel prize in economics brought the number of women honored in this year's Nobel Prizes to five (out of 13 total): "The largest number ever to join the ranks in a single year," noted the Nobelprize.org Web site.

It's tough to know whether this is something to celebrate.

Let's set aside the gender imbalance for a moment and instead focus on the women:

On Monday, Indiana University professor Elinor Ostrom became the first woman to win the economics prize (officially called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel) for her analysis of economic governance. (She's also a member of Science's Board of Reviewing Editors.) In an interview with Adam Smith from NobelPrize.org, Ostrom noted that economics is a male-dominated field. "I've attended economics sessions where I've been the only woman in the room," Ostrom said. "But that is slowly changing. I think there's a greater respect now that women can make a major contribution, and I would hope the recognition here is helping that along." (See also ScienceInsider's item on the economics prize.)

Last week, Herta Müller, a Romanian-born German writer, became the 12th woman (out of 106 recipients) to win the Literature prize. She, "with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed," according to the Nobel committee.

Ada Yonath, professor of structural biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, was the 4th woman to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work on the structure and function of ribosomes. "I never thought about me being a woman or not when I did science," she said in an interview last year. Indeed, the wisdom she had for those of us in the audience at last year's European Platform of Women Scientists Annual Conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, focused on the process of science rather than on any issue of gender:

"In the 27 years that I was working with ribosomes, ... I took away this fantastic piece of wisdom: According to some theory, almost anyone can be a genius if they focus on a single endeavor to the exclusion of all else," she said. "But how can people today maintain such focus when they face so many distractions? In my opinion, it can only be done by being allowed to work on demanding projects for relatively long periods, even when no physical results are emerging. We worked 20 years until we had the first structure [of ribosomes]. We had a huge puzzle to put together, and every piece was for us a big, gratifying moment."

In fact, it was a Nobel Prize-worthy puzzle. (Click here for ScienceNOW's coverage of the chemistry Nobel prize.)

Last but not least, this year's winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine included Elizabeth Blackburn, professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco; and Carol Grieder, professor of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, for their work on telomeres and telomerase. (Click here for ScienceNOW's coverage of the physiology or medicine Nobel prize.)

People often note that there the telomere field seems to be dominated by women. Grieder addressed this in her NobelPrize.org interview and in Tuesday's New York Times. I like what Blackburn had to say in her interview with NobelPrize.org: "It's fairly close to the biological ratio of men and women. It's all the other fields that are aberrant. This is the normal field," she said, laughing.

Smith asked Blackburn if she worked to promote women in the science. "I've only actively promoted what we always hope is good science. It's not as if one would favor a woman researcher in this area over a man researcher in the area. Women have come into this field, perhaps because ... of the kinds of things that I've been doing, and Carol [has been doing]. We are women, and we tended to have women students and postdocs--not 100%; they tended to be 50-50 men and women, which is already higher than the usual ratio. There's a self-perpetuating aspect to that." She continued: "You want women to have access to science because it's such a wonderful thing to do."

Blackburn's comments reinforce the notion that a mentor who looks like you can have a positive effect. So, while it's hard to know whether to celebrate or bemoan the fact that, for the first time ever, 38% of the new Nobel laureates are women, I am happy that these women have been recognized and hope they will be inspiration for the current and emerging generation of women scientists.


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