June 23rd: Alan Turing & Ada Yonath

Today’s Google Doodle highlights what would have been the 100th birthday of computer scientist and father of artificial intelligence Alan Turing. Given the fact that this is the 16th male Doodle in the United States this year (when no women have been honored here in 2012, and worldwide this year only 9.8% of Doodle honorees have been female), I’m once again disappointed to see another Doodle honoring the achievements of a man when women are getting the short end of the stick.

At the same time, though, I do want to give the Doodles credit for including another dimension of diversity in their honorees: while the Doodle acknowledges Turing’s work on theoretical Turing Machine, he is almost as well-known for the discrimination, persecution, and criminal prosecution he faced as a gay man living in the United Kingdom in the mid-20th century. I’d encourage you all to learn more about Turing and his life.

Here on Speaking Up, we’ll be focusing on Ada Yonath, born on this day in 1939.

Ada Yonath

Ada Yonath in her lab at the Weizmann Institute, photographed by Miki Koren (courtesy of the Weizmann Institute of Science).

Yonath is a crystallographer and 2009 Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry (along with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz), though her interdisciplinary work crosses the boundaries between biology and chemistry. Yonath studies the ribosome, a complex molecular structure which is part of every living cell. She uses an X-ray crystallography technique, which she pioneered, to study the ribosome on an atomic level and better understand how ribosomes translate information from DNA into the proteins that allow us to live. While understanding how the ribosome functions is key to truly understanding the biological processes of life, Yonath’s work has a more immediately critical and useful implication: modern antibiotics do their work by binding to bacterial ribosomes and blocking their function. She has investigated the process and workings of over 20 antibiotics.

What’s more, Yonath accomplished all this given incredibly humble beginnings. She was born in Jerusalem to a very poor family, and their situation became even more difficult after her father passed away when she was 11. In her Nobel prize acceptance, she thanked her mother for supporting her educational endeavors and her desire to learn through all of the difficulties the family had faced.

Yonath is currently the director of the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly, at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. In addition to the Nobel Prize (which, I want to mention, she was the first Israeli woman to win), she is also a recipient of the Wolf Prize in Chemistry and the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science.

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