With no man, more than one woman for the first time won Nobel Prize in chemistry

With the announcement of the Nobel Prize in chemistry 2020, the debate of under-representation of women in Nobel Prizes is back.

The 2020 Nobel Prize for went to Scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for the development of a method for genome editing that has revolutionised science by providing a way to alter DNA. It is a historic first for women in Nobel Prize as it is for the first time a Nobel science prize is given to more than one woman, but no men, in a specific category. 

If calculated with precision, it can be clearly outlined that since the inception of the Nobel prize in 1901, it has happened for around 169 times that multiple men and no women in a specific category have won the Nobel prize. In the last 120 years of Nobel prizes in medicine, physics, and chemistry, prizes were awarded 599 times to men and only 23 times to women.

The Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences have been awarded to women 57 times between 1901 and 2020. Only one woman, Marie Curie, has been honoured twice, with the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics and the 1911 Nobel Prize in chemistry. This means that 56 women in total have been awarded the Nobel Prize between 1901 and 2020.

Noble Prize women

Two female scientists made history:

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna are the first two women to share the prize, which honours their work on the technology of genome editing. The award smashed records and made scientific history as the only science Nobel ever won by two women.

Noble Prize in Chemistry

Charpentier, who is French, and Doudna, an American, become the sixth and seventh women to win a Nobel Prize for chemistry. They discovered one of gene technology’s sharpest tools: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. Using these, researchers can change the DNA of animals, plants, and micro-organisms with extremely high precision.

In an interview with reporters after the award was announced, Charpentier said that while she considers herself a scientist first, she is happy and a bit shocked that two women won the Nobel. “I think it’s very important for women to see a clear path. I think the fact that Jennifer Doudna and I were awarded this prize today can provide a very strong message for young girls,” she said.

While Doudna said, “I’m proud of my gender. I think it’s great, especially for younger women, to see this and to see that women’s work can be recognized as much as men’s.”

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5 innovative women in history who won Nobel Prize in Chemistry:

The Nobel Prize in chemistry is the most prestigious and highly regarded prize a chemist may receive in their lifetime. Since its commencement in 1901, it has been awarded to a total of 184 chemists, but only five of these Nobel Laureates are women. Let’s take a look at those women who created their space in this male-dominated area:

1. Marie Curie

Marie Curie, no doubt, is the most widely known chemist. Born as Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Warsaw in 1867, she studied at the Sorbonne University in Paris, where she met Pierre Curie, who later became her husband and her colleague in the field of radioactivity.

Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of the radioactive elements radium and polonium. This was not her first Nobel Prize, however, and she received the award in physics in 1903, along with her husband and Henri Becquerel, in recognition of their research into radioactivity.

2. Irène Joliot-Curie

Irène Joliot-Curie was the daughter of Marie Curie. Irène was primed to be a scientist from a young age. She also served as a nurse radiographer during the First World War. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1935 with her husband Frederick Joliot-Curie for their synthesis of new artificial radioactive elements.

3. Dorothy Hodgkin

Another chemist who was interested in the use of X-rays was Dorothy Hodgkin. Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1964 for her work in the determination of the structures of biomolecules important to life. Her work changed the way we treat bacterial infections and led to the generation of many penicillin-derived antibiotics. 

4. Ada E. Yonath

Ada E. Yonath was awarded the prize in 2009, around 45 years after Hodgkin was awarded her Nobel Prize in chemistry. She was awarded the prize for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome, a vital subunit found in cells. As ribosomes are made up of hundreds of thousands of atoms, many scientists dismissed Yonath’s attempt to solve their structure, a task they deemed impossible.

5. Frances Arnold

Frances Arnold was awarded the prize in 2018, along with Sir Gregory Winter and George Smith for their production of new enzymes and antibodies by directed evolution. Arnold established a method of tailoring enzymes so that they can carry out their function more efficiently, or carry out new functions altogether. 

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Only 2 women till now have been awarded Nobel Prize in economics:

On November 27, 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament, giving the largest share of his fortune to a series of prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace the Nobel Prizes. And in 1968, Sveriges Riksbank (Sweden’s central bank) established The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

Since the inception of the Nobel prize in economics in 1969, only two women till now have been able to win the Nobel in economics. Elinor Ostrom in 2009, was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics for her contribution to analysing of economic governance, especially the commons.

It was then after a decade when another female economist Esther Duflo bagged the Nobel Prize in economics in 2019 for her experimental approach to alleviating global poverty. She was awarded the Nobel in economics along with two co-researchers Abhijit Banerjee (her husband) and Michael Kremer. Duflo was only the second woman to win the Nobel in economics but was also the youngest person (at the age of 46) to win in this category.

Nobel prizes’ diversity problem:

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute are in charge of selecting the Nobel winners for chemistry and physics, and for medicine, respectively. In 2019, nominations have asked nominators to consider diversity in gender, geography, and topic.

Nobel Prize 2020
Nobel Prize medal

It is seen that efforts to diversify Nobel winners are slow going. The ratio between males and females in Nobel Laureates is still highly imbalanced. Though women make up more than half of the general population, they too count as an under-represented group in many STEM disciplines.

If deeper looked into the fact, there were no Black or female award recipients in physics, chemistry, or medicine at the December 2019 Nobel ceremonies.

There are many reasons for these dismal numbers. Though it is truly said that it’s important to remember that the Nobel Prize is awarded for discoveries and inventions. Still, there is an important need to celebrate each and every innovative mind that benefits society and the world, regardless of any discrimination.

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