Noble Women, Nobel Prizes: Three Female Scientists Win Big!

Welcome back to GLeaM!


I want to start today's article off with a bit of a shoutout. I attended Math Prize for Girls virtually over the weekend, and though it was definitely different due to not being in-person, it was still very well-run. The two mathematicians that gave the Maryam Mirzakhani Keynote lectures, Dr. Dana Randall (Georgia Tech) and Dr. Ioana Dumitriu (University of California at San Diego), explored fascinating ideas surrounding the sampling and counting of domino tilings and error detection in coding theory, and they both gave me lots of inspiration for future GLeaM articles!


As I explained in my previous article, the Math Prize for Girls event is usually hosted at MIT and centers around a super creative and challenging math competition as well as lectures, panels, game nights, and other activities. It's definitely an event to aspire to attend, and the community around Math Prize for Girls is absolutely incredible. Selection is based entirely on AMC scores (and is typically cut off at a score just a bit above the AIME cutoff), and I'd love to talk to any of you to help you reach your AMC goalsand to strive to attend this amazing event.


Today, we'll be talking about some of the most historic news for women in academia in recent years. Four women have just won Nobel Prizes in 2020, including two women who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, and Jennifer A. Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley. Only five other women have ever won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry over the 120 years of its occurrence, and this is a groundbreaking moment for women in the field. It is also the very first time a science Nobel Prize has been awarded to two women.


In addition, Andrea M. Ghez of the University of California Los Angeles earned only the fourth Nobel Prize in Physics ever won by a woman, shared with Reinhard Genzel and Roger Penrose, for the discovery of a black hole at the center of the galaxy, and Louise Glück won a Nobel Prize in Literature.


I know GLeaM often focuses on the pure aspects of math, but I thought I would take a moment to discuss some of the other fields of science, where math guides incredible discoveries. There is so much you can do when you pursue a dynamic STEM career, and these women are examples of the role models we all need to tackle extremely challenging problems.


I'm extremely fascinated by the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Physics, so today, I thought I'd break down what exactly these women achieved, and why it's so groundbreaking.


The Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Developing Gene Editing Technology


Jennifer A. Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier worked together to develop the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR (or CRISPR-Cas9) that has since taken the biological and chemical world by storm.


CRISPR-Cas 9 essentially acts like a pair of "genetic scissors," cutting DNA at specific locations, enabling scientists to modify or alter precise genes within the genome.


Cas-9 serves as the protein that snips the DNA, while CRISPR is the molecule that guides those proteins to the specific locations scientists are looking to target for cuts.


Doudna and Charpentier got the idea for CRISPR based on what had been observed in the defense systems of bacteria. When a bacteria is attacked by a virus and survives, it incorporates segments of the virus's DNA within its own DNA loop. If the virus reattacks, the bacteria can then use these segments as templates to make a genetic material called RNA, which is able to detect the corresponding segments within the virus's DNA. Then, Cas-9, a protein brought along with CRISPR-RNA, is able to disarm the virus by cutting the DNA at those specific spots.


"CRISPR" is simply the name for the borrowed virus segments incorporated within the bacteria's DNA: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.


Since this discovery, Doudna and Charpentier sought to find a way to develop similar machinery to be used strategically to alter DNA in other organisms. They created a material called Guide RNA which is able to replicate any portion of an organism's genome, serving the role of CRISPR RNA in bacteria, which then guides the Cas-9 protein to cut a very targeted portion of the genome.


A depiction of CRISPR in action. Courtesy of Getty Images.

Researchers across the world use this technology to disable genes, allowing them to figure out the specific functions of certain genes, based on the effects of turning them off.


CRISPR also can be used directly to fix, edit or insert portions of DNA into the genome, modifying crops to have desirable traits and potentially even curing genetic diseases—though the research involved in the latter is still being addressed.


CRISPR was first described in 2012, and by 2020, it is likely that you've already heard of it, as it's been able to spread across the world extremely quickly and become vital to lab work everywhere.


Among other applications, CRISPR has been used to create coffee beans that are naturally decaffeinated, significantly lowering the price of decaf coffee, produce efficient biofuels from algae, and even possibly bring back species that have become extinct. (Read more here.)


There is definitely quite a lot to be said about how CRISPR-Cas 9 is going to influence human history, but we can definitely say that it's one of the most important advancements in the history of biology.


Not only is CRISPR-Cas 9 beyond incredible in its own right, but we can definitely look up to and take inspiration from such amazing women as Doudna and Charpentier.


"It really speaks to the fact that for many women, there's a feeling that no matter what they do their work will never be recognized the way it would be if they were a man. This recognition today refutes this," Jennifer Doudna said to NBC News Now on the impact of her work.


Here are some resources if you'd like to explore CRISPR further!

Doudna's TED Talk:

An explanation of the Nobel Prize by CEN Online:

Here is Jennifer Doudna reacting to her Nobel Prize:

Here is Emmanuelle Charpentier:


An in-depth article on CRISPR from Live Science: https://www.livescience.com/58790-crispr-explained.html

The Nobel Prize's press release article:

https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/2020/press-release/


The Nobel Prize in Physics: Proving that Black Holes Exist


I'll also devote some of this article to the Nobel Prize in Physics, which concerns black holes.


Professor Andrea Ghez of the University of California, Los Angeles is sharing the award with Sir Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford and Professor Reinhard Genzel of the University of Caifornia, Berkeley and the Max Planck Institute.


Roger Penrose won one-half of the Nobel Prize award for proving mathematically that black holes are a direct consequence of the general theory of relativity, despite Einstein's belief that they could not truly exist in the sense that they could capture absolutely everything that enters them. Way back in January 1965, Penrose proved that black holes form and that they contain singularities within them.


This is one of the most fundamental contributions to the general theory of relativity since Einstein. Penrose actually worked with Stephen Hawking to develop these theories, and the two proved that black holes must exist in the universe. It is in fact possible that the gravity of an object is so strong that it becomes a singularity, a point of infinite density that not even light can escape.


Andrea Ghez and Reinhard Genzel shared the other half of the award, leading groups of astronomers to focus at the center of the galaxy, especially on a region called Sagittarius A*. By mapping the orbits of the stars closest to the center of Milky Way and seeing how the stars are affected by gravity, it became clear to them that there is an extremely heavy object through which light does not pass that forced the stars to move at incredibly fast speeds.

The object has been confirmed to be a black hole and appears to be about 4.5 million times the mass of the sun.


The evidence that Ghez and Genzel have collected is extremely convincing in proving that there is a supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. By pioneering new methods for telescopes using infrared light that could see through the clouds of interstellar gas and dust to accurately examine the center of the Milky Way the pair have labored since the 1990s to reach these incredible conclusions, establishing to the answer to the most important question of astrophysics at the time: what is at the center of the galaxy? A black hole, of course.


In addition, a huge team of people worldwide were even able to create the first ever image of a black hole last year, formed by a bunch of radio telescopes across the world, known as the Event Horizon Telescope Team, which propelled the research on black holes even more to the forefront. (Read more here.)


The first image of a black hole, by the Event Horizon Telescope Team.

This Nobel Prize is shared between the theoretical discoveries within the black hole field (in this case, developed way back in the 1960s by Sir Roger Penrose) and the observational evidence that confirms it (by Ghez and Genzel). Back then, Penrose and Hawking proved mathematically that it's inevitable that black holes exist in our universe, but the prize wasn't given out until this year as the evidence by Andrea Ghez and Reinhard Genzel confirmed it.


Astrophysics is a field that is growing at an incredible rate, and it's definitely extremely compelling to witness these fascinating discoveries.


Of course, Ghez herself is a pioneer for female astrophysicists.


"Understand that there are always going to be hurdles," said Andrea Ghez, "There are hurdles in life no matter who you are, whether you're a woman or not, and our abilities to contend with obstacles is an important skill set."


Here are some resources to learn more about black holes!

Here is Andrea Ghez's TED Talk:

This is a phenomenal video on the topic:

This YouTuber, Dr. Becky, is an astrophysicist herself, and has a whole playlist on supermassive blackholes.

Here is Andrea Ghez reacting to her Nobel Prize!

An article from UCLA Galactic Center:

http://www.astro.ucla.edu/~ghezgroup/gc/journey/smbh.html

The Nobel Prize's press release article:

https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/2020/press-release/


CONCLUSION:

I hope all of you enjoyed exploring these phenomenal Nobel Prizes with me! It's certainly incredible to see so many trailblazing women make such amazing discoveries in physics and chemistry, and I had a lot of fun writing this article for you. Feel free to reach out with any questions or comments, and see you in two weeks!


Cover Image Courtesy of Cosmopolitan. Left to right: Jennifer A. Doudna, Andrea Ghez, Emmanuelle Charpentier