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Three young women scientists: Dr. Efrat Shema-Yacoubi from the Weizmann Institute, Osnat Sommer from the Tel Aviv University and the student Gili Bisker from the Technion will receive the UNESCO-L'Oreal Prize for the Advancement of Women in Science today

Esnat Sommer-Pen is a doctoral student in bioinformatics at Tel Aviv University, Gili Bisker is a doctoral student in nanotechnology at the Technion, and Dr. Efrat Shema-Yaakubi is a researcher at the Weizmann Institute in the field of molecular biology and cancer research

Prof. Ruth Arnon, from Magali Copaxon, and the president of the National Academy of Sciences. Photo: Courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences
Prof. Ruth Arnon, from Magali Copaxon, and the president of the National Academy of Sciences. Serves as the chair of the judging committee for the UNESCO-L'Oréal Prize for the Advancement of Women in Science. Photo: Courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences

The UNESCO-L'ORÉAL partnership "For Women In Science" (L'ORÉAL-UNESCO For Women In Science) - a multinational project to promote women in science - is celebrating 14 years of activity.

This year, the senior judging panel, led by Israel Prize laureate Prof. Ruth Arnon, selected two leading young Israeli scientists: Dr. Efrat Shema-Yacoubi from the Weizmann Institute and Esnat Sommer-Penn from Tel Aviv University. The winners will receive a cash prize that will help them in their research, and will also be the Israeli candidates for the UNESCO-L'Oréal International Scholarship 2012. In addition, the judging team decided this year to specially award a third prize to a young Technion student, Gili Bisker, in order to support the advancement of her scientific career.

harness the computer in favor of "chasing viruses"

Esnat Sommer-Pen is a PhD student in bioinformatics from Tel Aviv University, 31 years old, married and mother of two children, lives in Ramat Gan.

Asenat is involved in computational biology, a relatively young scientific field that combines biology and computer science. During her doctorate, in Prof. Tal Popko's laboratory, Esnat developed computer tools to study the evolution of the HIV virus that causes AIDS, and to compare the genomes of different strains of the virus that are common in different geographical areas. The purpose of the research is to understand how the viral genome evolved in order to evade the immune system and how the virus adapted to different populations around the world. Understanding the differences between the different strains has significance in the development of drugs adapted specifically to the strain.

Learning from hundreds of autistic children: Understanding the genetic basis of autism
The research for which Sommer-Penn won the UNESCO-L'Oreal prize "for women in science" will deal with the genetics of autism.
In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the frequency of diagnosed autism cases. Today it is known that the autistic spectrum syndromes have a distinct hereditary component, but the genetic basis of autism is still largely shrouded in fog, despite intensive research in the field, and it is clear that it is a complex inheritance.
In her research, which will soon begin at the University of Washington in Seattle, Sommer-Penn will analyze genome sequences collected from hundreds of families with an autistic child. By comparing the genomes of the autistic children to the genomes of their parents who are not autistic, the researcher will try to understand what the difference between the child and his parents is.
In this way, Esnat hopes to try and crack the mystery of autism cases that do not have a family history (sporadic autism) and to help understand the genetic complexity of the disease. These understandings have direct implications for the development of genetic tests to diagnose autism during and after pregnancy.

Asanat's parents have encouraged her since she can remember to think independently and critically. According to her, the support of the entire family and especially of her husband, Roy, allowed her to achieve achievements in research while raising two children and thanks to them she has the necessary strength to take the challenging step of uprooting the family to the United States for the purpose of her post-doctorate. "I wish for every woman to find a partner who will be a full partner in parenting, and for every man to take a significant part in raising his children. The research gives me great satisfaction and interest, and the family makes me very happy and I am glad that I am not required to give up any of them."

"Gold guided missile" to eliminate cancer

Gili Bisker, PhD student in the inter-unit program for nanosciences and nanotechnology at the Technion.
30 years old, married to Dan, a PhD student in computer science at the Technion, and mother of a daughter, Sharon. Born and lives in Haifa.

As part of her doctoral thesis, Gili researches and develops new cancer treatment methods based on the controlled release of drugs from gold nanoparticles using short laser pulses.
For this purpose, gold nanoparticles coated with cancer drug molecules are prepared. These molecules are actually antibodies that bind specifically to the receptors on the surface of cancer cells and thus they bring the coated particles to bind to those cells that we want to destroy.

Gold nanoparticles have special optical properties: when they are illuminated with a laser at their resonant frequency, the light intensity in their immediate environment is increased by several orders of magnitude. After the particles coated with antibodies bind to the cancer cells, they are illuminated with a laser of the appropriate frequency, and the increased light intensity around them causes two parallel killing processes: the tearing of the membranes of the cells to which the particles are attached, which leads to their death, and in addition, the release of the layer of antibodies that covers the surface of the particle, when the released antibodies bind to additional cancer cells and signals to the immune system to destroy them.

Direct injury - without secondary damage (as happens with radiation)
The work is done at low laser intensities, so laser illumination alone does not cause direct damage to the cells without the presence of nanoparticles. In this way we guarantee that there is no damage to healthy tissues, but only in the tumor areas marked by the particles.

Gili Bisker holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics with commendable honors and is a graduate of the Technion's excellence program. Gili has a master's degree in physics with honors, also from the Technion. In addition, Gili won awards during her studies, among them: an award from the Knesset of Israel for excellence in academic studies, a scholarship from the Committee for Planning and Budgeting (VAT) in the field of integrated technologies, and an outstanding practitioner award. During her training, Gili Bisker represented the Technion as a graduate student in the Dean of Students' fundraising delegation in the United States.

About Dr Efrat Shema-Yaakubi, a researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in the field of molecular biology and cancer research, in Prof. Moshe Oren's laboratory, we wrote a few days ago.

UNESCO-L'Oréal "For Women in Science"

In 2008 we were even honored for the first time with an Israeli laureate, Prof. Ada Yonat from the Weizmann Institute of Science - who a year later won the Nobel Prize.

The unique partnership of UNESCO and L'Oréal "for women in science" is intended to recognize the contribution of prominent women scientists to scientific progress, and to encourage the participation of women in scientific research. Since the founding of the UNESCO-L'Oréal partnership "for women in science", hundreds of female researchers from 43 countries have been recognized so far, who have developed new, sometimes revolutionary ways to improve the quality of life for humanity.

The project has two parts: international recognition of 5 leading female scientists each year (which was won by Prof. Yonat), and the awarding of scholarships to 15 promising young female scientists - which was won two years ago by the Hagar Galbard-Shagiv International Prize from the Weizmann Institute, and a year ago by Dr. Naama Geva - Zatorsky from Tel Aviv University. An international panel of judges, made up of renowned scientists - including Nobel Prize winners - examines the nominations and announces the winners of the prizes and scholarships. In recent years, the UNESCO-L'Oréal scholarship project for young scientists has also been implemented in Israel. The goal of the project is to promote the integration of women in Israeli science and to recognize their important contribution.

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