Young women scientists are doing it for themselves... but a little help doesn't hurt

Young women scientists a

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October 7, 2009 23:59
3 minute read.

 
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Women scientists say they want to be treated equally by their male colleagues and employers, but at the same time, special accommodations and grants would be welcome, as it is much more difficult for women to pursue their research careers without having a "wife" to back them up. Prof. Shulamit Levenberg, a 40-year-old modern Orthodox biomedical engineer at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology who has six children - the oldest 13 and the youngest just four months old - says it is "always harder for women" to pursue a scientific career. Levenberg, who lives in the Galilee, told The Jerusalem Post after Ada Yonath's Nobel Prize win that financial aid is important. "Science is not an ordinary job for women. They have to work nights in the lab. And when they go to scientific conferences abroad, their own trips are paid for, but not that of an accompanying person who will take care of infants and young children. It must come out of their own pockets." When she did her post-doctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1990s, she was fortunate to get a special grant from EMBO (the European Molecular Biology Organization) that was calculated according to the number of family members, thus making her stay in the US more comfortable. She also advocates special prizes for women to encourage them to push ahead in their fields. Levenberg, whose cutting-edge tissue engineering research is targeted at the eventual creation of lab-manufactured tissues and organs for transplants and the curing of degenerative diseases, has a child care worker at home to take care of her brood when she is working. "I always preferred that arrangement over a day-care center," she said. Her husband is a computer-expert-turned-Jewish educator who strongly supports her career. When it comes to promotion, Levenberg - who received her professorship only very recently - says women are not held back due to their gender, but it is much more difficult for women to reach the same achievements as their male counterparts because of their family responsibilities in addition to their scientific ones. Now that Israeli women constitute a little bit more than half of all university students and medical students - and even a higher proportion of dental students - institutes of higher education have realized they have to pay attention. Prof. Adi Kimchi, a molecular geneticist at the Weizmann Institute for Science in Rehovot and adviser to the institute president for promoting the status of women, told the Post that three years ago, it established a national prize for 11 outstanding women researchers in universities around the country. The money helps them go abroad for post-doctoral research and make arrangements for their children to be cared for when they are away. This year, 56 women applied for the prestigious grants. "This has opened the bottleneck for excellent women scientists who had a difficult time going abroad for studies," Kimchi said. The Rehovot institute also has on-campus day care centers, nursery schools and kindergartens for babies through preschoolers among the academic staff that are open until 6 p.m. on weekdays. Another unusual project introduces young women students to famous women scientists from Israel and abroad, including Prof. Elizabeth Blackburn, an Australian-American researcher at the University of California, who just shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak. "It is meant to establish female role models for them," said Kimchi. "Women scientists need support and recognition - grants to perform their research and fellowships to enable them to work with optimal day care for their children," said Prof. Karen Avraham, a leading scientist in the department of human molecular genetics and biochemistry at Tel Aviv University's Sackler School of Medicine. "Most important, girls in high school and young women in universities should be encouraged to follow their dreams and pursue scientific careers. Israel, with active involvement of the government, needs to create faculty positions and support biotechnology, so that young Israeli scientists of both sexes trained in Israel and abroad will have a future here to pursue science." Science and Technology Minister Daniel Herschkowitz, a mathematician who previously worked at the Technion, told the Post that women scientists should receive special fellowships. "It's always a dilemma, whether to reward people for their achievements based on their work or to give special rewards to outstanding women for whom it is more difficult because of their family obligations. There is very high potential in science for women. We could and should do more to help them. On-campus day care centers, for example, are a great idea, as are special post-doc fellowships, and I will encourage them."

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