Weizmann chair urges girls to enter science

Varda Rotter

TORONTO — Varda Rotter, chair of the Weizmann Institute’s department of molecular cell biology, says it’s up to girls to find their own way in the world of science.

Rotter, 66, who is married with two daughters and eight grandchildren, said on a recent visit to Toronto that girls are capable of doing everything, but they’re not treated equally.

“They have to promote their gender, but they don’t want to be promoted because they are women. Some things have not changed.”

Born in Germany, Rotter earned her PhD in cell biology from the Weizmann Institute in 1976. Following postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she returned to Israel and joined the faculty of the Weizmann Institute.

She also serves as the president’s adviser for advancing women in science and is director of Israel’s Women’s Health Research Center.

Varda said that while 50 per cent of PhD students at Weizmann are women, they make up only 13 per cent of its professors.

“We call it the scissor effect. There is a point where women just don’t go on.”

To encourage women, she said, for the past six years, the school has offered postdoctoral fellowships of $50,000 for two years to 10 women who want to pursue an academic career.

“Weizmann wants to encourage Israeli women to choose that track.”

A genetic engineer, Rotter and two other Weizmann scientists first cloned and characterized the p53 gene, and showed that it actively prevents cancer.

It has since been found that p53 is non-functional in about half of all cancers, making it the most frequently altered gene in tumours.

The gene, known as the “guardian of the genome,” puts the brakes on cancer when a cell’s DNA is damaged. When these “brakes” aren’t functioning properly, there is nothing to stop a normal cell from transforming into a cancerous one.

Rotter is searching for ways p53 can be used to stop the proliferation of cancer cells.

She was in Toronto to attend a conference on p53 arranged by Dr. David Malkin at the Hospital for Sick Children.

“A good p53 gene is a guardian against cancer, but sometimes it turns into a mutant. We are trying to find ways to reverse this. Our collaboration with [the hospital] is a blessing,” she said.

In the day-to-day life of a scientist, she said, there is no one “aha” moment.

“Every day is an ‘aha’ moment.”

Scientists, she said, must have devotion, tenacity and belief.

“We have to take advantage of other people’s work. They have been the first to discover something, but we have to keep going.”