Advice from Four Nobel Prize Winners

The Central Arizona branch of the Association for Women in Science recently sent out a transcript of a conversation with the four women who won Nobel Prizes this year. The transcript is from an article is titled:  2009 Nobels: Break or Breakthrough for Women? Science Volume 326, Number 5953, Issue of 30 October 2009

Because some of you may be considering careers in science, or are encouraging children who want to become scientists, I will pass on some of their remarks.

First of all, the women who won Nobel Prizes in 2009 are Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, who won in the category of physiology or medicine with along with Jack Szostak. They studied how chromosomes are protected from degradation during cell divisions. Blackburn is a professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, and Greider is a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. Ada Yonath is from Israel. She won with Thomas Steitz and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan in chemistry, for uncovering the structure of the ribosome. Elinor Ostrom won with Oliver E. Williamson in economic sciences for their work on economic transactions going on outside of markets. Her main affiliation is with Indiana University. For more photographs and more information, see

Counting these four women, the total number of women to win the Nobel Prize (since it began in 1901) is 17, a mere 2.8% of all the winners. The interviewers were largely interested in the women’s views why this might be the case. As you might expect, the answers are as diverse as the women themselves.

When asked what could be done to encourage women to participate in the sciences, Elizabeth Blackburn suggested that leadership training for postdoctoral fellows potentially could help retain women at a time when many drop out of their careers. Carol Greider concedes that scientific mentors often haven’t received formal training in areas like leadership, they figured it out themselves. This make it hard for them to pass it on successfully.

Ada Yonath, however, thought the answer might lie in the steps before the post graduate. She says,”Although girls and young women are taking classes in the life sciences and chemistry, only a few of them make it to the next and the next and the next step. And this is maybe because there is not enough effort made in making them appreciate science and love science and develop their scientific curiosity.”

Yonath goes on to say that she thinks it is important for scientists to go talk to children and let them know what science is really like. She explains that in Israel they have a formal organization that sends academic scientists to talk to high school and early college-aged girls about their careers. She believes that if scientists are able to convey their passion, their love of science, then others may see that it is possible to pursue their own interests and be successful.

Obviously this is a highly complicated issue, but I’d like to add a practical hint.  Even without formal organizations for girls to meet scientists, many colleges and universities offer open houses, family days, tours and other events open to the public. Your children can see research projects, interact with scientists and students, and often do hands on activities. Be proactive and do your own research into events, because many of these are not advertised extensively. The events/activities are often affiliated with a particular department, such as astronomy or geology. Check websites and even make a few phone calls, if necessary.

Examples:  Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Open House

College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering of the University at Albany from On Living On Learning post.

Earth Science and Space Exploration Day at Arizona State University.

Congratulations to these four women for their achievements. Now, let’s go have some fun and encourage our daughters’ interests in science by taking advantage of the many wonderful opportunities available.

This post was prepared for the Diversity in Science Carnival, hosted this month at Urban Science Adventures! ©. I will let you know when the carnival is up.


  1. Sandra Foyt

    Even though we took our kids to the Nanoscale Science Open House, I hadn’t thought about taking that idea further and investigating programs at our local colleges. Even the Cornell Open House is within driving distance. Thanks for “opening” my mind to these possibilities!

  2. Roberta

    My 4-H club used to go to the Cornell open house every year, and I ended up going to graduate school there. You never know…

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