Inspired at an early age to become a chemist, Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff’s scientific work in molecular biology has fundamentally changed the treatment of diabetes.
Beginning college as a chemistry major, she found herself struggling with her courses and went to her advisor for help. At this point she was told, “Of course you are struggling, women don’t belong in chemistry.” And at first she believed him, and she switched her major a few times trying to find her place.
After switching schools entirely, Villa-Komaroff earned her Bachelor of Science in biology from Goucher College. Completing graduate work in molecular biology at MIT she earned her doctorate in cell biology in 1975. While at MIT she was a founding member of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.
As a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard she was working with recombinant DNA technology but found that her task was impossible and met with a string of failures. Not daunted, she stated that the experience taught her that “most experiments fail, and that scientists must accept failure as a part of the process.”
In 1977, she joined the insulin cloning team at Harvard and the next year she was the first to publish a report showing that bacteria could be induced to make proinsulin. This development would be the first time a mammalian hormone was synthesized by bacteria and is considered a milestone in the birth of the biotechnology industry. This process has led to the production of recombinant human insulin used by most patients for the treatment of diabetes.
Continuing her research and teaching at major universities Dr. Villa-Komaroff was featured in a PBS documentary called DNA Detective in 1995. A year later she left the research lab and was recruited to serve as Vice President of Research at Northwestern University. Returning to Boston in 2003 she became the Vice President for Research and Chief Operating Officer of Whitehead Institute, an affiliated research institute with MIT.
Currently, she is the Chief Science Officer at Cytonome, Inc. as well as sitting on the boards of many public and private institutions.
Written by Angela Goad