Image: Electra Sinclair

Lydia Villa-Komaroff Has Spent Four Decades Fighting For Diversity in Science

“I was almost done with graduate school before I met scientists of colour whom I could look to as mentors.”

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Feb 28 2017, 3:00pm

Image: Electra Sinclair

Humans of the Year

In 1973, a handful of Hispanic and Native American scientists got together in Atlantic City, New Jersey to talk about the lack of diversity in their field. In earlier meetings, in Albuquerque and Denver, they'd established a need for a group—one that would encourage more students to pursue science. They'd decided to call it SACNAS: Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science.

A young scientist named Lydia Villa-Komaroff was at that 1973 conference, which became the first annual SACNAS meeting. She was one of the first women involved with the group—and in 1975, she became one of the first female Mexican-Americans to get a PhD in science in the US. (The molecular biologist, now 69, is widely credited as being the third to earn this title, but in a recent interview with Motherboard, she said she was probably the fourth or fifth.)

"It just didn't occur to me that I shouldn't do what it was that most interested me," she told me. "This turns out to be a pretty good strategy that I encourage other kids now to take on."

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Villa-Komaroff's career, spanning four decades, has been remarkable. At the age of 31, she was lead author on an influential 1978 paper that detailed how to produce insulin from bacteria—instead of horse and pig pancreases, which was the leading method at the time—essentially solving the problem of insulin unavailability. Today, most of the world uses insulin made from the recombinant DNA techniques introduced by her team.

Her workplaces have included the Boston Children's Hospital, University of Massachusetts, Harvard University, Whitehead Institute, and Cytonome, a private company that specializes in cell-sorter manufacturing. In 2016, she won the Morison Prize at MIT, given every year to an individual whose work in science and towards humanistic values is exceptional.

Now—in a state of semi-retirement—she lives across the street from a working farm, minutes outside Boston, and travels the country to to influence students into pursuing science. Making the sciences more diverse and inclusive remains her calling.

Born to a big family in a small house in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Villa-Komaroff went to Seattle's University of Washington to study chemistry, partly to find some space for herself. As the eldest of six, she imagined herself in a quiet laboratory, alone. But she wasn't a very disciplined student, she told me, and switched out after an advisor told her that chemistry wasn't for girls.

In the face of opposition, Villa-Komaroff said, she was undeterred. "It helps to remind yourself, 'It's not my problem. I know what I can do— they can't determine what I can and can't do.'"

"I was almost done with graduate school before I met scientists of colour whom I could look to as mentors"

She changed her major five times before ending up in biology, finding herself fascinated by how a single egg could produce a fully formed human being.

She transferred out of Washington before completing her undergraduate degree, following her future husband Tony—Anthony Komaroff, now a professor at Harvard—to the East coast. John Hopkins University wasn't accepting female undergraduates at the time, so she went to Goucher College, a small liberal arts school in Maryland.

Villa-Komaroff was surrounded by a sea of white men. "I was almost done with graduate school before I met scientists of colour whom I could look to as mentors," she said.

As a graduate student, she was at a conference on experimental biology when she noticed a session to discuss Mexican Americans and Native Americans in science, she said. "That intrigued me, because I didn't know there were any."

Just a few dozen people were there, yet they represented a good chunk of the Mexican American and Native American scientists with PhDs, and almost all were men.

"The joke was, we could all get in an elevator together, and if it dropped and we all died, there'd be no more Hispanic scientists," mathematician Richard Tapia, one of the society's founders, told me. Over the years, as the society grew, the founders became a family, he added.

A UCSB student and SACNAS member graduates. Image: Glenn Beltz/Flickr

The main objective of SACNAS was to serve as a forum that would both support existing scientists, and attract new ones. "And obviously, we found a need. We found something that people were looking for, and we exploded," Tapia said.

Villa-Komaroff's career was taking off. In the midst of postdoctoral work in 1978, she was invited to join Argiris Efstratiadis, Walter Gilbert ("a rotund, jolly genius," as she remembers him), and a handful of other researchers at Harvard to work on cloning insulin in E. coli bacteria.

"We knew that you could make the DNA, say from a mouse or a human, in bacteria," she explained, but they had no idea whether it would then work. "That is to say, you would make the RNA, and the RNA would make a protein which would fold appropriately, and then work the way it was supposed to work [as insulin] in a human being."

In a research rarity, and very quickly, everything clicked.

The team cashed in for 20 years on patent royalties, according to Villa-Komaroff. And patients, within one lifetime, went from dying of insulin unavailability—Villa-Komaroff's own grandmother died of diabetes—to having it readily produced and available.

"I now don't have a day job," she told me, laughing. "Semi-retired" for Villa-Komaroff means working on several boards and associations—such as the Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering at the National Science Foundation, and SACNAS, whose annual meetings now attract more than 4,000 people—varied work that reflects her life as both a scientist and activist.

While there are more female students and faculty today than when Villa-Komaroff was starting out, the progress with ethnic minority scholars has been slower, she said.

"We're wasting a lot of talent," she said, "because kids get the subliminal message that they can't do it, or shouldn't do it."

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