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Women Scientist Profiles

Lydia Villa-Komaroff, Ph.D.

Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff

Lydia Villa-Komaroff, Ph.D. is a molecular biologist, an executive, and a diversity advocate. She is a board member and former Chief Executive Officer and Chief Scientific Officer of Cytonome/ST, LLC, a company developing and manufacturing purpose-built cell sorters. She is a founding member of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Dr. Villa-Komaroff held faculty positions at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, Boston Children’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School. She served as Vice President for Research at Northwestern University in Illinois, and Vice President for Research and Chief Operating Officer of the Whitehead Institute. Dr. Villa-Komaroff is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association for Women in Science. Her honors include induction into the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference Hall of Fame, a Lifetime Achievement Award from Hispanic Business Magazine, 2008 National Hispanic Scientist of the Year (Museum of Science and Industry, Tampa, Florida), 2013 Woman of Distinction (American Association of University Women), and the 2016 Morison Prize Lecture (MIT). She is one of 11 women scientists profiled on the website of the White House Office of Science and Technology. Her B.A. is from Goucher College, and her Ph.D. is from MIT.

Dr. Villa-Komaroff is currently semi-retired; however, as a bench scientist, she used molecular biology to study aspects of cellular biology, neurobiology, and developmental biology. When she became an academic administrator, interest in organizational structure and organizational change became the focus. Now, she is particularly interested in increasing diversity in STEM—specifically in the synthesis of information that brings together a theory of how the mind works, how the human mind evolved to think, and how that process results in implicit bias and so interferes with our ability to move forward more rapidly with introducing diversity in STEM.

How has mentorship (either as a mentor or mentee) shaped your career?

I have been fortunate in my mentors. It started with my parents and grandparents, who were important role models and mentors to me. As I entered science, there were certainly not role models for someone like me, a Mexican-American woman of color. I was fortunate to have a series of role models, mostly Caucasian men and some Caucasian women, who were important in encouraging me, had high expectations of me, and did not have preconceptions of what I could and could not do because of who I was. As a mentor, I try to model that; I let people know you are never too old to need a mentor and never too young to be a mentor. Mentoring is part of the job description of a responsible scientist.

What are some of the challenges to being a scientist?

I’m not sure that there are challenges that are specific to science. Any worthwhile field will have challenges with respect to work-life balance. Being a scientist gives you more flexibility than some other kinds of work, but in any career, you find your way. If you want and love to do something, then you will find a way to fit your life and career together. It’s not really about balance; it’s more like juggling. One must set priorities at different times depending on what’s important in the moment. Sometimes you need to focus on your training and discipline and other times focus on your family. It is a dance through life that we all must do. It is not specific to being a scientist. In terms of being a good scientist, the basic challenge is defining important, interesting, and solvable problems and communicating that to your colleagues in a clear way. It is also a good idea to convey information in a way that is understandable to the general public.

What have been the most rewarding aspects of your career?

I would say there have been two. First, there is nothing quite like finding something truly novel and potentially important. If you are doing cutting-edge science, then that is a rare feeling, since many times things don’t work. Other rewarding aspects are just doing it. I really enjoyed benchwork and working with my hands. Secondly, seeing the scientists I trained go on to successful careers of their own is very rewarding. Watching those young women and men develop into productive grown-ups. Some became scientists while others did not, but they all seem to find their way, and that is very satisfying. Perhaps, in the end, the people are the most rewarding aspect of my career.

Do you have advice for young female scientists?

There isn’t anything that is easy. What you want to do is pick something you like to do, because there will be tough times no matter what you choose. If you choose to devote full time to family, there will be challenging times. If you combine career with family, that’s going to be difficult as well. You should pick something that is truly what you want to do and figure out how to get it done. Secondly, be persistent. Finally, seek advice, help, and comfort from peers and older individuals that have been through it.

What are some characteristics of a successful scientist?

Curiosity is the outstanding hallmark: an open curiosity and willingness to consider the options. It is so easy to fall in love with your own ideas, and a good scientist must question one’s own assumptions as well as the assumptions of others. The most successful scientist is one who questions and is willing to go out on the edge, where others haven’t gone. Another hallmark is persistence. Science is a career where you are bound to fail many times, so persistence is important. At the same time, you need to know when to change course. It is an interesting balance of persistence that doesn’t turn into stubbornness.

What do you do outside the lab/clinic?

I like reading a lot, so I read everywhere I am. I read quickly, so being able to have many books on my devices is a blessing. I also like music a lot, so I listen to music and sing on occasion. Also, my husband and I like to travel together. Our latest was a tour of the National Parks including the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce.

Who is/was your scientific role model? Has it changed over the course of your career?

I have had a lot of role models. When I was a child, one of my role models was Hans Selye. He was an endocrinologist in Montreal who studied the stress response. As a scientist, Madame Curie was my very first professional role model, because she was a scientist and a woman who won the Nobel Prize twice. As an undergraduate, I worked in Loretta Leive’s lab at NIH—she taught me the basics, such as how to do dialysis, run a centrifuge, and plan an experiment. She also made it clear to me that I had to apply for graduate school at MIT, which was the best thing that happened to me as a budding scientist. In graduate school, my mentors David Baltimore and Harvey Lodish, as well as faculty members such as Mary-Lou Pardue and Lisa Steiner, became some of my scientific role models. As a postdoc, my continuing role models were Wally Gilbert and Salvador Luria. There are many others.

What is a career achievement of which you are most proud?

As a scientist, I was privileged to work with Wally Gilbert in a team that showed that insulin can be produced in bacteria; that was certainly the scientific highlight of my career. In collaboration with Bruce Yankner, who was a postdoc in my lab and is now a professor at Harvard Medical School, we provided the first evidence that amyloid can damage neuronal cells. These two are scientific achievements of which I am most proud. In terms of administrative work, I helped the administration at Northwestern University move the university into a position of greater strength as a research institution. Lastly, a source of great pride is seeing all that my trainees have done.

What is a life achievement of which you are most proud?

Being one of the founding members of the SACNAS, on which I worked with a group of innovative individuals, is an important achievement. I am most proud of the mentoring I have done.

Has your research ever taken you to exotic/exciting locations?

Yes! Science gave me my first opportunity for international travel. It took me to Europe and other parts of the world to scientific meetings. I am a molecular biologist, so it doesn’t involve trips to the jungle, but meetings in Europe were an eye-opener. It also afforded me the opportunity to become acquainted with other places not necessarily associated with travel—such as being exposed to courtrooms, the patent office in Munich, the high court in Britain, and courts in the United States where recombinant gene cases were being litigated and I served as an expert witness.

Has the trajectory of your career changed over time?

Yes. I started as a bench scientist, then went to academic administration, and then to the business world. I think this serves as another message for young scientists. Scientific training—the ability to solve and define problems—helps you in a very important way. The world is changing fast, so you will probably be doing something entirely different in 5 to 10 years.

If you weren’t a scientist, what other job would you have? Why?

I’m not sure; however, there are times I thought I could have made it as an entertainer. I think that, all things considered, science is an extraordinary career, and it allows you many possibilities Being a researcher, teacher, administrator, and businesswoman shows the range of things you can do with scientific training.


This page last updated: August 9, 2018

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