For the third year running, the Israeli winner of the L’Oréal-UNESCO “Women in Science” prize has gone on to take the winning title for all of Europe. Dr. Osnat Zomer-Penn, who was one of three Israelis chosen to compete in the finals, received the European award in a ceremony at the Sorbonne in Paris on Thursday.
Zomer-Penn, who is doing research at Tel Aviv University and at the University of Seattle in Washington state, was named Europe’s top Woman in Science by L’Oréal and UNESCO for her work in determining the genetic basis of autism. Zomer-Penn had been chosen as one of the Israeli winners of the L’Oréal-UNESCO prize last August. Zomer-Penn was one of 15 women selected from around the world in regional competition finals, each of whom receives $40,000 to advance her studies – along with the international recognition that winning the competition brings.
Zomer-Penn is studying genome sequences collected from hundreds of families that have an autistic child. Comparing the genomes of the autistic children to the genomes of their healthy parents, Zomer-Penn hopes to find variations that could be used to explain the presence of autism, with an eye towards developing a genetic therapy. In addition, her research aims to crack the mystery of autism cases that have no family history (sporadic autism) and to assist in understanding the genetic complexity of the disease.
The L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Prize has been awarded for 15 years, with Israel joining in 2008. Since then, Israel, although one of the smallest countries participating in the event, has become one of its biggest winners, with three Israelis — Zomer-Penn, Hadar Gelber-Sagiv, and Na’ama Geva Zatursky — winning the European award over the past three years. Dr. Ada Yonath, who went on to win a Nobel Prize, won the award in 2008, and Israeli Victoria Yavlasky won in 2005.
In a letter to Zomer-Penn, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wrote that she had “joined an exclusive club of Israeli scholars at the forefront of global research and science. You and your colleagues, along with many other researchers, are living proof of the quality of Israeli researchers and their contribution to the advancement of science and research.”