2016-12-ACWIS-DEC-Enews-1-FINAL

“No country can afford to neglect half its talent.”

So says Nessa Rappaport, Senior Program Officer of the Charles H. Revson Foundation – and the Weizmann Institute of Science couldn’t agree more.

The Revson Foundation’s actions speak as clearly as those words; along with several other valued, generous individuals and organizations, it supports the Weizmann Institute’s National Postdoctoral Award Program for Advancing Women in Science.

2017 marks 10 years since the program was established to help close science’s gender gap; now, as 2016 draws to a close, it is the perfect time to look at the impacts of this remarkable effort.

It is a fact that there are disproportionately few women scientists in the world, but this is a particular problem in Israel. As a small country with few natural resources, it places tremendous value on its human capital and simply cannot afford this loss of brainpower. And so when the Institute noted that half of the students at its renowned Feinberg Graduate School were women, but the numbers of female scientists on faculty were quite low, the National Postdoctoral Award Program for Advancing Women in Science was born.

Looking into why the numbers of women in science dropped precipitously after the PhD stage, the Institute found where many were getting off the tenure track: postdoctoral research.

In order to be a successful research scientist with her own lab, a scientist needs more than a PhD; the years of postdoctoral investigation are critical. And for Israelis, going abroad for the postdoc years is particularly important – besides learning new methods and concepts that they can bring back home with them, the worldwide relationships they build lead to collaborations and other “bridges” that help alleviate the country’s isolation.

But packing up and moving to a foreign city for several years can be particularly challenging for women, many of whom have families at this point in their lives, and uprooting spouses and children is daunting. Moreover, since the most prestigious universities are often in large cities, the cost of living is high. Thus, many extremely talented female scientists stop pursuing an academic career at this stage.

This is why the National Postdoctoral Award Program for Advancing Women in Science exists. Fully donor-supported, it gives two-year fellowships to around 10 women each year. Each award is $40,000 ($20,000 per year), which supplements the typical postdoc pay of $35-40,000 – not much for cities such as New York, Boston, San Francisco, and London. As one recipient conducting her research at Princeton said, “I probably couldn’t do my postdoc without the award.”

While the Weizmann Institute established and administers the program, it is open to all Israel female scientists with PhDs. It is highly competitive – a mark of excellence – with around 60 talented candidates applying each year for the relatively few positions; thus, the awards truly go to the best of the best. And while it is hoped that the scientists will bring their skills back to Israel afterwards, they are not required to do so.

To date, 106 women have participated in the award program. Of these, 49 have completed their postdoc work; the others are in the midst of their fellowships. Thirty-eight – or 78% – of the 49 who have finished have taken positions in Israeli academia, including at Weizmann. Of the rest, six have accepted faculty appointments abroad, and four are in the high-tech and biotech industries.

The program’s value is evidenced by the results. For example, here are just a few of the stellar recipients now establishing their own labs at Weizmann:

  • Dr. Ilana Kolodkin Gal (Department of Molecular Genetics; postdoc at Harvard) studies biofilms – large groups of bacteria that, together, are able to resist antibiotics. Her workhas clinical, agricultural, and ecological implications.
  • Dr. Michal Leskes (Department of Materials and Interfaces; postdoc at Cambridge) is a chemist making advances in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology and improving lithium-ion batteries, used for everything from cell phones to electric cars.
  • Dr. Ruth Scherz-Shouval (Department of Biomolecular Sciences; postdoc at MIT) investigates tumor microenvironments, which surround cancers and help them live, grow, and resist treatment.

The scientific contributions these brilliant young women are making, even early in their careers, are remarkable. Together, we can make sure they have plenty of company in the future.