Although she is the ninth Israeli to receive the Nobel Prize, Professor Ada Yonath’s distinction – being the first Israeli woman to receive the prize, and the first Middle Eastern woman to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences – is more than a reward for a remarkable scientific achievement. It focused the limelight on Israeli women in science, and, to my amazement, the number of religious Jewish women in various branches of the field.
Professor Yonath was born on June 22, 1939 to religious Zioninst parents who immigrated to Palestine before the establishment of the State. They settled in Geula, a religious Jerusalem neighborhood where her father, a former rabbi, was the owner of a grocery store patronized by observant Jews. Although they lived in cramped quarters with several other families, their poverty did not deter her parents from sending Ada to school in the affluent Beit Hakerem neighborhood to assure her a good education. When her father died at the age of 42, the family moved to Tel Aviv where Ada was accepted to a first-class high school. As her mother could not pay the tuition, Ada, in lieu of payment, gave math lessons to fellow students.
In 1962 Ada Yonath graduated from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry, and two years later, with a master’s degree in Biochemistry. In 1968, she earned a Ph.D. in X-Ray crystallography at the Weizmann Institute of Science, a discipline in which her assiduous research has earned this Israeli woman of science the Nobel Prize.
Update: In October of 2014, Professor Yonath was named an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences by Pope Francis and is currently the incumbent of the Martin S. and Helen Kimmel Professorial Chair.
In 2006, Professor Shulamit Levenberg, a young mother of six, and an award-winning professor of Biomedical Engineering at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa was honored by the prestigious American journal Scientific American as one of the world’s 50 leading scientists. This was for her groundbreaking work in tissue engineering – a development that could result in the ability to create tissue for various medical uses and to eventually replace damaged organs in the body.
“I was totally surprised, I didn’t know anything about it,” the modest religious Jewish woman revealed.
“Our publication chose the organizations or individuals who advanced science and technology, laying the foundations for a better future,” the Scientific American editor explained. “Their selection for our list of 50 not only gives them the honor they deserve but also highlights the important fields that benefit from their achievements.”
Dr. Levenberg has had extensive research experience with molecular and cellular biology, stem cells and tissue engineering. Earlier that year, Dr. Levenberg and her colleague, Professor Lior Gepstein, made news when they created actual beating-heart tissue at Technion.
Dr. Levenberg received her B.Sc. degree in Life Sciences from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1992, and her Ph.D. seven years later in Molecular Cell Biology from the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. As a post doctorate fellow and a research associate she worked for five years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston on stem cell tissue engineering and biopolymers.
In October 2004, the Levenberg family returned home to Israel as Shulamit was invited to direct the Laboratory of the Human Embryonic Stem Cell Tissue Engineering at the Technion in Haifa.
Update: In 2012 Prof. Levenberg was granted the Juludan Prize for excellence in scientific research and was included in The Marker “Israel Sharp Minds” list of the year. In 2013, she was nominated as the Woman of the Year by Emuna Foundation, Israel’s largest women’s religious organization and was ranked as one of 10 scientists of 2013 by Maariv newspaper.