In a recent lecture at Elmhurst, molecular biologist Lydia Villa-Komaroff talked about the joys of a life in science—from breakthrough discoveries in insulin research to the future of stem cell research.
Only the third Mexican-American woman in the U.S. to earn a doctorate in science, Villa-Komaroff is internationally recognized for her early work in discovering that insulin can be produced by bacteria cells.
“At the time, I was working at Harvard, but I was doing the experiment at MIT because it required special containment,” Villa-Komaroff told a large audience at Elmhurst on October 3 at the College’s César Chávez Intercultural Lecture. “I was pretty much alone in the lab when I went back after a snowstorm and I looked at the plate.”
What Villa-Komaroff was looking at turned out to be significant—not only for her career, but also for the world of pharmaceuticals. She discovered that insulin, if connected in a particular way to DNA in bacteria, could encourage the bacteria to begin secreting more insulin.
To this day, insulin and countless other medicines and vaccines are produced using this same technology that Villa-Komaroff and her team of researchers discovered in the 1970s.
“That’s part of the absolute joy of doing science,” says Villa-Kamoroff. “That moment when you finally figured it out. It’s rare. For some of us, it’s rarer than for others.”
Villa-Komaroff has worked as a researcher at Harvard Medical School and vice president of research at Northwestern University. She now serves as chief scientific officer of the Cytonome/ST research company in Boston.
At Elmhurst, Villa-Komaroff described the technology behind Cytonome/ST’s optical cell sorter, which can rapidly sort human cells in a sterile environment for therapeutic use. The machine is in its fifth prototype.
Besides research, Villa-Komaroff’s other great passion is encouraging more women and minorities, particularly those of Mexican-American and Hispanic heritage, to consider careers in the sciences. She grew up hearing stories about her paternal grandmother, a curandera, or healer, who knew about medicinal herbs and how to set broken bones. Her maternal grandmother, who lived with Villa-Komaroff’s family for a time, was an avid botanist. And Villa-Komaroff admitted to being a child who always liked to “take things apart.”
Villa-Komaroff said she sometimes hears from students who say she inspired them to pursue degrees in science. At Northwestern, a student told her, “You know, I’m in this program because I heard you give a talk.” More recently, a poised, confident woman approached her to say that she embarked on a career in science after hearing Villa-Komaroff speak when she was in middle school.
“That is incredibly gratifying, I have to tell you,” Villa-Komaroff said with a smile. “It says that one person really can make a difference.”