Today is the 6th International Day of Women and Girls in Science. On this day, which is implemented by UNESCO and UN Women – the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women – we recognise the critical role of women and girls in science and technology.
To mark this important day and the contribution of women to biological sciences, Nordic BioSite brings a roundup of the female scientists who have been awarded a Nobel Prize in either Physiology or Medicine or Chemistry since the turn of this century.
2004: Linda B. Buck
The first female to win a Nobel Prize in either Physiology or Medicine or Chemistry in the 21st century is Linda B. Buck. Buck is a US-born scientist who shared the 2004 Prize in Physiology or Medicine with American molecular biologist and university Professor Richard Axel for their discoveries of odorant (smell) receptors and the organisation of the olfactory system. The duo’s groundbreaking research paper published in Cell in 1991 uncovered 1,000 different mammalian genes that encode olfactory receptors, and ultimately paved the way for genetic and molecular analysis that have unraveled the mechanisms of olfaction.
2008: Françoise Barré-Sinoussi
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi is a French virologist who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2008 with her former mentor Luc Montagnier for their discovery of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in 1983. Barré-Sinoussi’s career in virology started as a volunteer in Paris’ Institut Pasteur where she received her PhD in 1975, and her work on HIV has taken her to many developing countries to study the virus on site.
2009: Ada E. Yonath
Israeli crystallographer Ada E. Yonath was co-awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome. Her work on ribosomes began in the 1970s and in 2000 she mapped the structure of ribosomes using x-ray crystallography. This huge undertaking was done along with other scientists including Indian-born structural biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and American biochemist Thomas A. Steitz, with whom Yonath shared the Nobel Prize. Yonath became the first, and so far only, woman from the Middle East to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences.
2009: Carol W. Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn
US-born Carol W. Greider was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase. She received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in 1987 and shared the Nobel Prize with her PhD supervisor Elizabeth Blackburn, an Australian-born scientist and the only Australian woman Nobel laureate to date. Blackburn and Greider discovered the enzyme telomerase, which produces the telomeres’ DNA, in 1984. The duo shared the Nobel Prize with Jack W. Szostak, a renowned Canadian-American geneticist, who together with Blackburn, proved that the non-coding, repetitive sequences found at the telomeres prevents chromosomes from degradation.
2014: May-Britt Moser
Norwegian neuroscientist May-Britt Moser won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014 with her then-husband Edvard I. Moser, and their mentor John O’Keefe, a US-born neuroscientist and professor based at University College, London. Together, the trio discovered a type of cell that is important for determining position close to the hippocampus. The ability to sense position allows for awareness of one’s location and how to navigate to other places, which are crucial functions in humans and animals. Moser’s work has opened doors for scientists striving to understand cognitive processes and spatial deficits associated with certain human neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
2015: Tu Youyou
Chinese researcher Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015 for her discovery of a novel therapy against malaria. Her landmark discovery occurred followed years of studying traditional herbal medicines, when she succeeded in extracting the anti-malarial substance artemisinin from the traditional sweet wormwood herb. Drugs based on artemisinin are the standard treatment for malaria today. Youyou shared the prize with Irish parasitologist William C. Campbell and Japanese biochemist Satoshi Ōmura.
2018: Frances H. Arnold
American chemical engineer Frances H. Arnold, who is a Professor and group leader at California Institute of Technology (Caltech), was co-awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018 for her pioneering work on the directed evolution of enzymes. Directed evolution involves iterative rounds of mutagenesis and screening for new proteins with improved functions. Her seminal work, published in PNAS, involved redesigning the naturally occurring bacterial enzyme subtilisin E to an engineered version that was highly active in an unnatural environment. Today, her work focuses on designing enzymes and organisms that can be used to produce environmentally friendly chemical substances and the renewable fuels.
2020: Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 was awarded jointly to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for the discovery and development of the revolutionary CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology. Since the discovery of CRISPR/Cas9 in 2012, which was made possible through Charpentier’s and Doudna’s work and the contributions of others – see an informative CRISPR timeline here – CRISPR has changed the way molecular biology is done in labs all over the world. CRISPR is also set to change the face of medicine for rare diseases and cancer with a growing number of new therapies based on CRISPR and related technologies using the Cas endonucleases progressing through clinical trials. CRISPR is also used by plant researchers to develop improved crops that resist mould, pests and drought.
Take Part in International Day of Women and Girls in Science
This year’s main event is a roundtable discussion about women scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19. An international team of experts from pandemic-related fields will address the role of women at the forefront of COVID-19 research as well as how the pandemic has negatively impacted female scientists and further widened the gender gap in science. You can read more about this and sign up for the live virtual event here.