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Vol. LXV, No. 10
May 10, 2013
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Women’s History Month
Villa-Komaroff Celebrates a Life in Science

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Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff

Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff

“There’s nothing as thrilling as getting up one morning, going into the laboratory and, in my case, opening an incubator and taking out a plate and realizing that you have something that nobody else has and nobody else knows,” said Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff at a recent lecture in observance of Women’s History Month. “I’ve had a couple of those moments and that’s a great gift.”

Continued...

One day, back in 1978, she and her colleagues made a medical breakthrough. They had cloned insulin, the first time a human hormone was cultivated from bacteria. On that day, she excitedly told a colleague she had wonderful news. He immediately guessed, “You’re pregnant?” Villa-Komaroff’s story illustrates a challenge faced by many professional women. But men and women both make such assumptions, she said, because we tend to “think in our tribes.” She advised listeners to consciously prevent such instant reactions and bias.

Villa-Komaroff says that career options within science are boundless.

Villa-Komaroff says that career options within science are boundless.

In his welcome, NIH principal deputy director Dr. Lawrence Tabak called Villa-Komaroff “a scientific trailblazer whose accomplishments span the entire gamut of scientific excitement and discovery from lab to academia into the corporate world.”

A renowned molecular biologist, Villa-Komaroff spent two decades in academia, including teaching and research positions at Harvard, Northwestern and Children’s Hospital in Boston. In 2006, she entered the private sector. At Cytonome/ST, where she is chief scientific officer, the company is developing an optical cell sorter that supports rapid, sterile selection of human cells, which will enable the development of new cell therapies.

While many women have made great scientific strides, women remain underrepresented in science and technology, said Tabak. He cited public perception as a barrier. If it’s true that women entering science goes against the social norm, he said, then we must change that philosophy and provide more opportunities. “It’s about getting the best and brightest here so we can succeed in our mission as an agency.”

“Why we continue to allow the media and society to tell girls it’s better to be a princess than a physicist just baffles me,” said Dr. Sharon Milgram, director of NIH’s Office of Intramural Training and Education. “Everybody should have the right to pursue their dreams independent of bias and stereotypes.”

As a Mexican-American woman who has had to overcome societal obstacles to attain her professional goals, Villa-Komaroff has proven that career options within science are boundless. “When one gets a Ph.D. in a particular discipline…that is a degree that opens worlds and is as spectacular a training for a number of different ways in which one can interact with the world,” she said.

One rewarding aspect of science is the discovery phase, what Villa-Komaroff called “the joy of the search.” She has touched countless lives with her insulin-cloning discovery. People with diabetes use recombinant insulin made based on techniques she and her colleagues developed decades ago. But even research that doesn’t immediately have practical implications, she said, “expands the realm of possible for all of us.”

Villa-Komaroff (fourth from r) is joined by special guests at her talk: members of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. SACNAS members are (from l) David Soto Pantoja, Leonardo Mariño-Ramirez, Erika L. Barr, Tamara James, Pamela Tamez, Rocio Benabentos, Shauna Clark and Natasha Lugo-Escobar.

Villa-Komaroff (fourth from r) is joined by special guests at her talk: members of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. SACNAS members are (from l) David Soto Pantoja, Leonardo Mariño-Ramirez, Erika L. Barr, Tamara James, Pamela Tamez, Rocio Benabentos, Shauna Clark and Natasha Lugo-Escobar.

Photos: Bill Branson

Villa-Komaroff also found great reward teaching and in administration where she helped to set policy and distribute resources. While she has held various leadership roles, her lab work taught her vital lessons. “One of the hallmarks of science is it’s not how senior you are, it’s about how much experience you’ve had,” she said. “You have to do the experiments...and you have to think for yourself.”

Can young women have it all? There are tradeoffs, said Villa-Komaroff, and we must make choices. “This is not a function of science but a function of life. Decide what it is you want to do, then figure out how to do it.” She also described how her connections helped facilitate her move into the corporate world. “Your network is with you forever,” she said. “Keep that list.”

The seminar, “From Cloning to Cell Therapy: A Life in Science,” was sponsored by the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management.


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