2021 Nobel Laureates | The women scientists of the Nobel Prize

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  • The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has announced the winners of the Nobel Prize 2021 this week.
  • Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine; Physics; and Chemistry study a wide variety of subjects, including how to model our rapidly changing climate, how our bodies respond to stimuli like pain and temperature, and how to build more efficient chemical building blocks.
  • The losers of this year’s Nobel Prize? Women.

    This week, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the 2021 cohort of Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine; Physics; Chemistry; Literature; and peace.

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    Among the winners in the science categories are climate modelers, chemists and a molecular neurobiologist, all of whom have worked diligently to solve some of the most complex problems facing our planet. But none of these laureates is a woman.

    There is room to be simultaneously disappointed by this lack of diversity, and to celebrate the achievements of the winners. So without further ado, here are this year’s winners.

    Physiology or Medicine

    The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine to the molecular neurobiologist Patapoutien Ardem of Scripps Research in La Jolla, Calif., and the physiologist David Jules from the University of California, San Francisco “for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch. “

    Patapoutian’s work at Scripps Research revealed a new type of receptor in the skin and internal organs that responds when mechanically stimulated. Julius, in part through his use of capsaicin, the chemical compound found in chili peppers, discovered receptors that respond to painful stimuli like heat.

    “The hope is that by identifying more molecular targets and understanding how they contribute to pain, we can begin to take a mechanistic and rational approach to developing drugs for these targets,” Julius said. Popular mechanics after winning the Breakthrough Prize 2020.


    Syukuro Manabe, meteorologist and climatologist at Princeton University; Giorgio Parisi, theoretical physicist at the Sapienza University of Rome in Italy; and climate modeler Klaus Hasselmann from the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, shared the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics “for revolutionary contributions to our understanding of complex systems,“the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced on Tuesday.

    “The findings recognized this year demonstrate that our knowledge of climate has a solid scientific basis, based on rigorous analysis of observations,” said Thors Hans Hansson, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Physics, in the announcement.

    Throughout his career, Manabe has developed climate models that have linked increasing levels of carbon dioxide to the climate and revealed how our atmosphere and oceans really are linked. Hasselmann used this research to develop a model that crucially linked short-term weather events, such as heat waves and rainstorms, for example, to long-term changes in ocean and air currents.

    Parisi, focusing instead on the big picture, studies how chaos permeates and influences systems large and small, work that has been particularly helpful in making sense of the uncertain future of our climate.


    On Wednesday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to two scientists – Benjamin List from Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany, and David MacMillan from Princeton University – for “the development of asymmetric organocatalysis.

    The chemical tool List and MacMillan independently developed streamlined the manufacturing process for pharmaceuticals and allowed researchers to create new types of catalysts, traditionally made from environmentally hazardous metals or bulky enzymes, more efficiently and economically.


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    Notably absent from this year’s ranking in the science categories? Women.

    Sadly, it’s no surprise that women have been left out of the race. The Nobel Prize committee does not have an excellent record when it comes to selecting women: out of the total of 962 Nobel Prizes awarded, only 57 went to women.

    Until Donna Strickland shared the Nobel Prize in Physics alongside Arthur Ashkin and Gérard Mourou in 2018, it had been 55 years since a woman had won the coveted prize. (Maria Goeppert Mayer won in 1963, and Marie Curie won 60 years before that, in 1903.) And in the chemistry category, there was a big gap – try 45 years – between Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin’s victory in 1964 and Ada E. Yonath’s victory in 2009.

    One woman of color, Chinese pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou, who won a 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work on developing a treatment for malaria, received a Nobel Prize in Physics, Chemistry or medicine.

    Not a single black scientist, male or female, has already won first prize in these categories.

    The victories of Donna Strickland and Frances H. Arnold in 2018 in physics and chemistry, respectively, as well as the victories in 2020 of CRISPR pioneers Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier and astrophysicist Andrea Ghez, seemed to indicate that the Royal Academy Science in Sweden could finally begin to recognize in earnest the contributions of the many, many women who shaped their respective fields.

    But, alas, 2021 looks like a step backwards.

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