Dr. Osnat Zomer-Penn, a 32- year-old computational biologist at Tel Aviv
University, on Thursday received the prestigious UNESCO-L’Oreal Prize for
She was the only Israeli among 15 women from Europe to win the
prestigious award from among hundreds of women who applied.
have received the prize since the country began to participate in the
competition four years ago.
Zomer-Penn, married, with two children, was a
PhD fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Edmond J. Safra School of Bioinformatics,
and has been a postdoctoral student at the department of genome sciences at the
University of Washington in Seattle for the past year.
Her research is in
a relatively new field that combines biology and computer sciences. She has
studied the evolution of the HIV virus and how its strains, common in different
geographical areas, differ from each other.
Zomer-Penn is now researching
the genetic basis for the developmental disorder autism.
The prize, a
product of the partnership between The L’Oreal Group and the United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is part of an initiative to
promote women in science. The ceremony was held on Thursday night at the
Sorbonne in Paris. Zomer-Penn is due to return to TAU when she completes her
postdoctoral work in another year.
A judges’ panel of leading women
scientists, – including Nobel laureates – selected the winners, who will receive
$40,000 over two years.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wrote to
Zomer-Penn when her award was announced a few months ago, stating that she had
“joined a prestigious and high-quality group of UNESCO-L’Oreal Prize winners who
are at the forefront of world scientific research and science.”
your colleagues and many other researchers are living proof of the quality of
Israeli women researchers and their contributions to the advancement of science
and research,” he said.
CEO of L’Oreal-Israel Nava Ravid added that the
number of women who are members of the Israel Academy of Sciences is only eight
out of 105.
Her company, she added, aims at “significantly increasing the
number of women to complete their postdoctorate study, which is usually pursued
abroad and is the glass ceiling for young women scientists, without which many
cannot achieve their dreams,” Ravid said.
Zomer-Penn worked on the HIV
virus at the TAU lab of Prof. Tal Pupko. Knowing more about the HIV’s
evolution and continued efforts to adapt to new populations and new treatments,
she said, would allow scientists to develop better drugs to help in the fight
However, the work that won Zomer-Penn the UNESCO-L’Oreal
Prize involved autism, which affects about one percent of the population – boys
more than girls. It has long been known in the scientific community that all
autistic syndromes are influenced by genetic pre-disposition, but the causes of
the disease are still largely a mystery.
Zomer-Penn has analyzed genetic
data collected from hundreds of families with autistic children.
comparing the genomes of autistic children to those of their parents who are not
autistic, Zomer-Penn is working to understand what causes the difference between
the child and the parents, something that could have direct implications for
autism testing during and after pregnancy.
Her statistical approach will
enable validation of predictive models which could be used in prenatal molecular
screening and early diagnosis of autism in children, as well as providing novel
targets for the development of new treatments. On her return to Israel, Zomer-
Penn plans to set up a new laboratory where she can apply this novel approach to
other human disorders.