Wednesday, October 7, 2009

2009 Nobel Prizes: Stellar year for Women and Diversity

The 2009 Nobel Prizes for Physics, Chemistry and Medicine were announced this week. We still await the prizes for literature, Peace and Economics. Of those the prize on Economics is not really a Nobel. The literature and peace prizes, especially the latter, are politicized. Hence this is a suitable juncture to blog on something wonderful this year. 3 women have won the prize this year. The other winners are an Indian (Tamilian), an Israeli (a woman), British, Canadian etc. Most of the prizes have been awarded to US citizens as most winners hold a US passport. Several, though hold dual citizenship. As a country US has garnered the most but its mostly thanks to immigrants.

For those who often question the practical applicability of the prize winning researches this year's topics are a resounding answer. The Chemistry winners research in RNA had spawned many a life saving antibiotic, the Physics winners in fiber optics made todays communication technologies a reality and for a device (CCD-Charge Couple Device) that is found on every digital camera or camcorder today, the Medicine winners have tapped into an area that can change how we treat cancer. The Medicine Prize and the Chemistry prizes have interesting angles to them.

The Medicine prize was awarded to three researchers, two wome, for their theories concerning "telomerase" an enzyme that is essential to protect 'telomeres' (the tips of DNA strands). NYT helpully served an analogy for telomeres. Telomeres are like the ends of shoe laces that are 'holding the strands together'. But for the telomeres when a chromosome divides the DNA strand would become unravelled. The enzyme 'telomerase' governs the function of telomeres. As we age the 'telomeres', the tip of a chromosome, becomes thinner and thinner during divisions and at one point the cell stops dividing. On the other hand cancer cells multiply because their telomeres are strong. Controlling telomeres could help medical researchers in their holy grail, defeating cancer.

How did 2 women, Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco; Carol W. Greider of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, come about in the same field and win in the same year. "Dr. Greider said she ascribed this to a “founder effect,” the founder being Joseph Gall of Yale University. Dr. Gall trained Dr. Blackburn and other women, and they recruited others to the field “because there is a slight tendency for women to work with other women,” Dr. Greider said. She herself trained with Dr. Blackburn."

Also it is now noted that the paucity of women laureates has less to do with relative merits of the intelligence of women but more to do with the fact that researches are often awarded a prize decades after. The researches in telomeres dates back to early eighties just when women started breaking many a glass barrier. In the coming years we will hope to see more and I fondly hope my daughter would join their ranks too.

The Chemistry prize winner Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, other than his humble origin, is interesting for the fact that he is a PHYSICIST. HIs undergrad, postgrad, PhD were all in Physics. Right after that he started work in the Chemistry department of Yale. Yet again we are reminded of how Chemistry skates close to Physics ( . The Nobel citation also noted another fact, the three chemists who are sharing the prize did not collaborate but were more like competitors unusual for a shared citation. Often the preponderance of Jews is cited in unfavorable light. The Israeli chemist to win,Ada E. Yonath, is a woman.

When I was reading Marie Curie's biography I was struck by her upbringing. While she is rare genius (won both the Physics and Chemistry prize) her childhood had all the marks of a very scientifically literate upbringing thanks to her dad. NYT article on the medicine winners notes "All three of the prize winners seem to have had science in their genes, and certainly in their home environment. Dr. Greider is the daughter of two scientists with doctorates from the University of California, Berkeley, and she, too, has a Ph.D. from there. Dr. Szostak’s father was an engineer. Both of Dr. Blackburn’s parents were physicians". Malcolm Gladwell would play havoc with this info.

"Though Americans have again made a clean sweep of the Nobel medicine prize, two of the three winners are immigrants. Dr. Blackburn was born in Tasmania, Australia, and has dual citizenship; Dr. Szostak was born in London" (NYT). Amongst the Physics winners "All three of the winning scientists hold American citizenship. Dr. Kao, 75, was born in Shanghai and is also a British citizen, and Dr. Boyle, 85, is also a Canadian citizen". The Chemistry team is diverse with an American (of Indian origin) currently working in Cambridge-UK, an Israeli and an American.

One parting thought though. This is the second year in a row where the Physics prize is awared to theories that have had direct consumer impact. Last years prize went to the theories behind what made Ipods and other electronic devices possible. Is the Nobel committee straying from its adherence of awarding mostly to "theoretical physicists". Experimental physicists, most notably Edison, are usually given the cold shoulder by Nobel committees.

A wonderful year for diversity and science. Three cheers.

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