Dr. Osnat Zomer-Penn, a 32- year-old computational biologist at Tel Aviv University, on Thursday received the prestigious UNESCO-L’Oreal Prize for 2013.

She was the only Israeli among 15 women from Europe to win the prestigious award from among hundreds of women who applied.

Five Israelis 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.”

“You and 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 against AIDS.

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.

By 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.

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