Women Nobel Prize winners hope to inspire a new generation of scientists

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This year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-female team to receive a Nobel Science Prize for their contributions to gene editing. This year’s winners also included astronomer Andrea Ghez and poet Louise Glück.

It is extremely unusual that so many women are awarded Nobel Prizes, and the laureates hope they can inspire a new generation of researchers. It is “great for women especially the younger ones to see this and to see that the work of women can be recognized as much as that of men,” Doudna told reporters.

Jennifer Doudna at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2016. Image credits: Jussi Puikkonen.

Since the Nobel Prize was awarded in 1901, only a handful of women have received one in science: four in physics (including two in the past three years), seven in chemistry (including two this year), two in economics, and 12 in medicine or physiology. Statistically speaking, women are significantly under-represented in Nobel Prize winners, even more so than in academia in general. Additionally, work stories of neglected or downright misattributed women are already common – Rosalind Franklin being just the most famous example.

But that could start to change.

It’s a “historic moment” to have so many laureates, says Pernilla Wittung Stafsheden of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, a member of the chemistry committee. It was hard to ignore the development of CRISPR-Cas9 by Doudna and Charpentier, a tool that allows researchers to cut and edit the genetic code of plants and animals. It’s been less than a decade since their seminal article, and various teams are already using it to research treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, blindness and many more – and the method also has applications in it. ‘Agriculture.

Emmanuelle Charpentier in 2015. Image credits: Max Planck Institute for the biology of infections.

For the winners, it is more than a simple celebration of their work: it is a chance to ignite the flame of the new generations.

“My wish is that this will provide a positive message to young girls who would like to follow the path of science, and show them that women scientists can also have an impact through the research they do,” said Charpentier.

Doudna sees this as an opportunity for women scientists to grasp equality:

“I think for a lot of women there is a feeling that no matter what they do, their work will never be recognized as it could be if they were a man,” she said. “And I’d like to see that change, of course, and I think it’s a step in the right direction.”

Their comments echo those of Andrea Ghez, who after receiving the physics award with Roger Penrose and Reinhard Genzel said:

“I hope I can inspire other young women in the field. It is an area that has so much to enjoy, and if you are passionate about science, there is so much to do.

Andrea Ghez is only the fourth woman to receive the physics prize since 1901, when the first smes was awarded. Image credits: Nobel Prize / Christopher Dibble.

Other scientists agree that this could be a turning point. When it comes to diversity in academia, progress is still slow and these high-stakes awards could have a huge impact. James Turner of the Francis Crick Institute said the Nobel Prize was a “triumph” for women scientists.

“Thanks to their findings, genetic modification experiments that previously took us years can be done in a matter of weeks,” he said.

Across much of academia, there have been similar responses.

“I totally agree that Charpentier and Ghez will be role models for young women scientists, because then it becomes more ‘normal’ to see women winning these awards and young scientists don’t think it is. is the domain of an old white man, ”Roisin Owens, a biochemical engineer at Cambridge University, told AFP.

But many warn that this is not yet enough. For women at the start of their careers in particular, the lingering obstacles are still there and will not disappear after a few Nobels. Fatima Tokhmafshan, geneticist and bioethicist at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Center in Canada, who collected magazine interviews with Charpentier and Doudna as she studied how to use CRISPR, says it’s demoralizing for young female students when they learn that historical researchers were eclipsed or unrecognized. She warns that for many female academics, things won’t change that much: Women “don’t earn as much as their male counterparts, don’t post as much as their male peers, and don’t hold positions of power. “.

But even if this is only a step in a long marathon, it is still a step, and potentially, an indication that a change may be coming.

When Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018 for her work on high intensity lasers, she was the first female laureate in the field since 1963. At the Lindau Nobel Meeting in 2019, she joked that she said that she was the only female winner – and hopes that next year she won’t always be the only one. Her wish seems to come true, and it’s good not only for women scientists, but for science in general.

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