Written by Jan Jaben-Eilon Tuesday, June 12 2012
Snapshot: Naama Geva-Zatorsky, Biologist, Israel’s Weizmann Institute
In April, 34-year-old Naama Geva-Zatorsky, a biologist at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, went to Paris to accept the International UNESCO L'Oreal Prize for Women in Science. Called "Europe's top young researcher" by the prize committee, she received a two-year, $40,000 fellowship for her post-doctoral work at Harvard University. The selection committee cited the "excellence and the originality of her work." Geva-Zatorsky, who holds a master’s degree and doctorate in systems biology, focuses her research on probiotics, or the “good” microbes that live in the human intestines and protect our bodies by stimulating the immune system. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority say most claims made about probiotics are unproven, Geva-Zatorsky believes there is room for more research on the potential benefits of probiotics. Geva-Zatorsky’s accomplishment is all the more significant because the European Commission on Gender Equality reported in 2008 that Israel suffers from a low proportion of female researchers in higher education, 25 percent, compared to the average 35 percent among EU member countries. Geva-Zatorsky grew up in Moshav Ometz, a small cooperative village in central Israel. She is now living with her husband and two young sons in Brookline, Mass., where she is continuing her research.
Womenetics: Everyone seems to be talking about probiotics lately. It’s advertised widely on TV. What’s so special about probiotics?
Naama Geva-Zatorsky: Probiotics are the good bacteria that live within us and have a tremendous therapeutic potential. They adapted and co-evolved together within us from the very beginning. They digest food ingredients that we cannot digest and fight with the bad, harmful bacteria. Their potential is out there, and we are trying to characterize and understand it better.
Womenetics: How did you get interested in researching probiotics?
Geva-Zatorsky: I was interested in communication between bacteria and between them and the host (i.e. us). These symbiotic bacteria that live within us are the best system, in my opinion, to study such questions. Thousands of bacteria species live in a very crowded niche (for example in our gut – the most bacterial-populated niche in our body). I am studying their way of getting along between themselves and in this so-called ‘ecosystem’ (ecological system). I am also studying what are their beneficial effects and how do we cooperate with them.
Womenetics: Why do you think there is such a low percentage of women researchers in higher education in Israel, even though women are active in the army there and Israel has had a female prime minister?
Geva-Zatorsky: I am totally convinced that this is not because of lack of capabilities or compatibilities of women. The biggest bottleneck is the post-doctoral stage where we are expected to study abroad for several years in order to learn a new field of research and acquire new expertise which we wish to bring with us back to Israel. This is a requirement in the Israeli academic career path. Most women in Israel at this stage are married and have children. The partner, in most cases, is engaged in his own career. It is challenging to find a location that would fit the entire family and this, unfortunately, leads to lack of motivation and ability to fit this requirement.
I encourage women and families to find solutions to this challenge and to go abroad for the post-doctoral stage, especially if they are interested in an academic career. Furthermore, I think that combining family and children-raising along with developing a career is an advantage.
Womenetics: Were you surprised when you won the International UNESCO L'Oreal Prize for Women in Science?
Geva-Zatorsky: Yes, I was surprised and very happy to receive the International UNESCO L'Oreal Prize for Women in Science. Being one of 15 women researchers worldwide is very exciting and encouraging. I am very happy about that.
Womenetics: How does it feel to be named "Europe's top young researcher" by the prize committee?
Geva-Zatorsky: It is very exciting and encouraging. This prize strengthens my belief in myself, and pushes me forward to continue my academic career. Being named "Europe's top young researcher" gives me pride and responsibility as an Israeli woman scientist.
Womenetics: Who has most influenced you in your life?
Geva-Zatorsky: This is a tough question. I was and am influenced by a lot of people: my family (both my nuclear family - husband and kids - and my extended family); my teachers throughout my life and especially throughout my academic career; and my friends, both in and outside the lab.
Womenetics: Is there anything you’ve done in your life that you wished you’d done differently?
Geva-Zatorsky: I am always in the process of personal and professional development and improvement. I am doing my best to be aware and to learn all the time.
Womenetics: What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?
Geva-Zatorsky: Research in Israel.
Womenetics: What keeps you up at night?
Geva-Zatorsky: If there are any issues with the kids, good or bad. And work, quite a bit. For example: how to proceed with the experiments and projects, what can be the interpretation of results I just got?
Womenetics: What are your hobbies?
Geva-Zatorsky: I like dancing, hiking, sports, arts and reading books. We travel and hike a lot as a family.
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Jan Jaben-Eilon was a founding staff writer of the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Since then, she has been the international editor of Advertising Age magazine and has written for such publications as The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Washington Journalism Review, and Consumer Reports. She is the author of soon-to-be-published (There is) Life After Cancer. Jan and her husband have homes in Atlanta and Jerusalem.