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Four female Nobel Laureates and the moments that inspired them

Finding inspirational women around the world (including right here at EF Education First) is a simple task. But the roads these women traveled to become prolific leaders were often paved with challenges. Many times, it was a specific moment — an unforgettable experience — that launched their journeys toward success.

It’s inspirational moments like this that EF aims to create across its divisions and at events like EF Global Leadership Summits, where students are tasked with developing solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Finalists have their proposed solutions featured in the Nobel Prize Museum right next to the work of Nobel Prize winners. In fact, EF students are the only non-Laureates to have their project work exhibited in the Nobel Prize Museum.

In honor of International Women’s Day and EF’s educational partnership with the Nobel Prize Museum, we’re celebrating four female Nobel Laureates who inspire us, along with the moments that sparked a fire inside them, setting them on a path to greatness.

Nadine Gordimer, 1923-2014

Nobel achievement: First South African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (1991)

An inspirational moment: After her mother withdrew her from school at age 11, Nadine came across a Bantu man trying to buy a pair of work pants at a stall in Spring, the South African gold-mining town where she lived. The clerk at the stall was white and told the Bantu man he was prohibited from trying on the pants or returning them, and that he had to pay for them up front before the clerk would give them to him. This moment, coupled with a time when the police ransacked the living quarters of her family’s black housekeeper with no cause nor warning, opened Nadine’s eyes to racial inequality.

More about Nadine: Nadine published her first short story when she was just 15, launching a 75-year literary career that led her to write 15 novels, 200 short stories and dozens of essays. She’s known for detailing South Africa’s journey through Apartheid, and she eventually joined the African National Congress in 1960. In 1962, Nadine helped Nelson Mandela edit his famous “I am prepared to die” speech for the trial that landed him in prison.

Toni Morrison, 1931-

Nobel achievement: First African American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (1993)

An inspirational moment: While teaching English at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Toni was invited to join a lunchtime writers’ group where people shared and critiqued one another’s work. She started bringing in pieces inspired by her childhood in Lorain, Ohio, and the discrimination she experienced as an adult. That eventually led her to publish her first novel, “The Bluest Eyes,” in 1970, and launched 40 years of groundbreaking contemporary African American literature.

More about Toni: Toni won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for her novel “Beloved,” and received numerous other literary awards and accolades including an appointment to the National Council on the Arts in 1980. She’s known for documenting contemporary African American culture through her strong female characters, poignant themes and striking dialogue.

Malala Yousafzai, 1997-

Nobel achievement: Youngest person ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at 17 years old (2014)

An inspirational moment: The Taliban had taken control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan—the place Malala called home—and instituted a ban on girls’ schools. Malala firmly believed in her right to an education and in 2009 when she was just 11 years old, her father invited her to take on a project that would alter the course of her life. He was in touch with a reporter from the BBC who was searching for a female student to blog about the Taliban shutting down girls’ education. Some of Malala’s classmates had turned down the role, fearing retribution from the Taliban, but Malala ran toward it. She used a pseudonym to tell her story and write about women’s educational rights for the network’s Urdu website. The Taliban eventually decided to allow girls to go back to school to finish their exams provided they wore burqas, and Malala became increasingly outspoken, eventually using her own name on a radio show called “Capital Talk.” After a period of significant turmoil, Malala started receiving death threats and was later shot in the head by a masked gunman while riding the bus home from school. Miraculously, she made a full recovery.

More about Malala: Malala and her father appeared in a New York Times documentary about the Swat Valley conflict, which brought her notoriety. In late 2011, she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize and won Pakistan’s first National Peace Award for Youth. A local secondary school in Pakistan was also named in her honor. Malala along with her father went on to co-found and run the Malala Fund, which pushes for free, safe and high-quality education for girls around the world.

Tu Youyou, 1930-

Nobel achievement: Awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (2015)

An inspirational moment: With a unique combined background in western pharmacology and Chinese medicine, Tu was tapped to lead a top-secret military program called Project 523. The program’s goal was to explore cures for malaria. That was in 1969, and after many years of research and testing, it was an ancient medical text from the East Jin Dynasty that provided a key clue. The manuscript described steeping quinghao (also known as sweet wormwood) in cold water. Tu and her team had been testing sweet wormwood steeped in hot water, and once they made this key shift in their process, the development of antimalarial drug Artemisinin came to be. The drug, which became officially approved through the Chinese Ministry of Health in 1986, has since saved millions of lives and decreased global malaria death rates by 47 percent.

More about Tu: While she considers herself primarily a lifelong student, Tu was a pharmacology teacher and research scientist until she was 39. She was awarded the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award in 2011, which helped bring her team’s work to the forefront and started to generate recognition for her achievements within the scientific community.

Photos: Malala Yousafzai — Southbank Centre through Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License; Tu Youyou — Bengt Nyman through Creative Commons Attribution-Share alike 4.0 International;Toni Morrison — Angela Radulescu through Creative Commons Attribution-Share alike 2.0 Generic License; Nadine Gordimer — Vogler through Creative Commons Attribution-Share alike 3.0 Unported

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