Female Israeli scientists to vie for top UNESCO award

Two women selected as candidates for a $100,000 prize, awarded to help mothers and wives continue lab work without worrying about family pressures

(L. to R.)  Adit Naor, Nava Ravid, and Natalie Zetoony at this year's presentation of the Israel L'Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award winners (Photo credit: Lamm-Velitz Studio)
(L. to R.) Adit Naor, Nava Ravid, and Natalie Zetoony at this year's presentation of the Israel L'Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award winners (Photo credit: Lamm-Velitz Studio)

Two female Israeli researchers, one studying magnetic bacteria and the other single-cell organisms that look like bacteria but aren’t, are in the running for a $100,000 prize from the United Nations and French cosmetics company L’Oréal, designed to help women support their families while toiling away in the lab.

The full awards, to be given out next March, evaluate the projects presented by candidates from dozens of countries around the world.

On Tuesday, the Israeli L’Oréal-UNESCO acceptance committee announced Israel’s two candidates: Natalie Zetoony, who is working on a project to develop ways to use “magnetic bacteria,” at Ben Gurion University, and Adit Naor, who is studying gene exchange in halophilic archaea (single-cell organisms that resemble bacteria, but aren’t), at Tel Aviv University.

Women in Science winners have been at the forefront of their disciplines, and two – one of them Israel’s Ada Yonath – who have won the award went on to win Nobel Prizes. The Women in Science award helps female scientists, especially those who are wives and mothers, to continue with their work in the face of family pressures and expenses.

Five women from around the world are chosen each year by an international jury of scientists for advancements in life sciences and materials engineering, with the winners getting $100,000 to help support them while they continue in their research. In addition, the program awards fellowships to 15 young scientists working on advanced projects. The fellowships, worth $40,000, are provided over two years.

So far over the past 15 years, the Women in Science awards have been presented to 64 laureates from 30 countries. Fellowships have been granted to more than 1,200 women in 103 countries.

Zetoony and Naor received their nominations in a gala ceremony in Tel Aviv Tuesday night. Zetoony is studying Magnetotactic bacteria (MTB), a polyphyletic group of bacteria with a particular peculiarity; living or dead, they align (lengthwise) to the poles, responding to the earth’s magnetic field. Residing mostly in water, these non-disease carrying bacteria have their own internal magnets. The bacteria were first discovered in 1975 and it is only now that scientists, like Zetoony, are trying to figure out what to do with them. Zetoony believes that the bacteria will be useful in a number of industrial and medical settings, such as developing nano-magnetic tools to build nano-computers, and taking advantage of their magnetic properties to treat cancer and other diseases.

Naor’s research focuses on archaea, organisms that resemble bacteria in shape, size, and behavior, but actually aren’t. Naor is studying a particular strain of archaea that lives in the Dead Sea (the occasional pinkish hue seen in the Dead Sea is caused by these creatures, scientists say). These archaea have a unique talent – the ability to exchange genes. The exchange takes place between archaea with far different gene structures, Naor’s research has found. In essence, the process is a form of live natural selection, with the archaea essentially “creating” hardier future generations. The implications of this process for medical use, Naor believes, could be significant.

Nava Ravid, chairperson of L’Oréal-Israel, praised the choice of Zetoony and Naor as candidates. “Scientists are curious, always seeking the truth, and are competitive and ambitious in their efforts to reach that truth. Anyone, man or woman, can develop those skills, and any differentiation between them in this vein is a myth. The two women chosen by the committee will represent Israel well in the international event next year.”

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