Wednesday, 30 July 2014 00:00

Lydia Villa-Komaroff Learned in the Lab “What It Might Be Like to Fly”

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villa-komaroffLydia Villa-Komaroff
Photo by Bachrach
"I grew up in a very big family in a very small house," says Lydia Villa-Komaroff. That house was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where few Mexican-American kids like herself were lucky to even finish high school. But Villa-Komaroff knew from a young age that she wanted to become a scientist. She remembers when she was nine, hearing her uncle talking about his work as a chemist and deciding that this sounded like the career for her. "All children are scientists, but... I think it gets lost because people forget about the excitement and the joy of discovery," she says. "I wanted to continue to explore things, take them apart, put them back together."

Villa-Komaroff did indeed, going on to a remarkable scientific career, taking things apart and putting them back together as a groundbreaking researcher in cell biology and microbiology. She was deeply involved in the early days of the recombinant DNA revolution, making her mark while still a postdoc as the leader of a team that discovered how to use bacteria to produce human mammalian insulin in 1978 and going on to a faculty position at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. After 18 years as an academic researcher and professor, Villa-Komaroff moved into research administration and then into the biotech industry in Boston where she is now Chief Executive Officer and Chief Scientific Officer and a member of the Board of Directors at CytonomeST. She also serves as a board member for Cytonome, ATCC, and the Massachusetts Life Science Center and makes frequent presentations to students and faculty.

But she never forgot that small house in New Mexico or the Latino kids she grew up with who did not have the opportunities or the support that helped her along the road to a science career. Even as a graduate student at MIT, Villa-Komaroff was active in minority outreach efforts, becoming a co-founder of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in the Sciences (SACNAS), which has grown into a leading science outreach group for minority students.

Last April, iBiology asked Villa-Komaroff to participate in a live Q&A session, moderated by iBiology founder Ron Vale. Villa-Komaroff, who has appeared in two iBioMagazine videos, "How I Became a Scientist" and "Why You Should Study Science" readily agreed to sit for a session in the monthly series, "iBiology Hangouts," which features live conversations with leading scientists.

In the Q&A and the videos, a lively picture emerges of a scientist who has always balanced the passion to excel with the joy of discovery. Villa-Komaroff attended the University of Washington, where she ended up studying biology, in part because an advisor told her, "Girls don't belong in Chemistry." She found research to be as joyful as she had imagined it as a child: "I was doing something with my brain and my hands that was very satisfying." When Villa-Komaroff applied to graduate school at MIT, she knew that it was "not exactly a soft and cuddly place," she recalls. "I knew that going in. But I needed to learn how to be more assertive, how to ask questions [because] that did not come naturally to me."

Villa-Komaroff excelled in her scientific training with Harvey Lodish and Nobel laureate David Baltimore, publishing numerous papers on the arrangement and processing of the proteins encoded by the RNA in the polio virus. At MIT, she says, "I learned that hard work can be extremely fun, especially if you are working with a group of other people. We worked hard and we played hard." In the end, Villa-Komaroff dedicated her thesis to her fellow postdocs and students, especially David Rekosh and David Houseman, "who taught me to walk" and to her advisors, "who taught me what it might be like to fly."

It wasn't until after she had earned her PhD and began work as a postdoctoral fellow that she really experienced the challenge of failure. The city of Cambridge banned recombinant DNA research just as she was beginning her postdoctoral research at Harvard University. That forced her to move to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for a year of experiments that failed one after another. In her iBiology Q&A, Villa-Komaroff recalled how valuable this experience was. It taught her the truism that most experiments fail and that scientists must accept that failure as part of the process. In fact, she says, though it was painful at the time, the lessons she learned during that year of failure turned out to be worthwhile once she returned to Harvard. "It set me up to the success with insulin, which we did in six months," she says.

Mentorship has always played a key role in Villa-Komaroff's life—as she says, "you're never too old to need a mentor and you're never too young to be a mentor." In her iBiology Hangout, Villa-Komaroff talks about the many different kinds of mentorship relationships one needs in life, from the supportive to the demanding, and how gratifying it has been to have seen the scores of students she has mentored through SACNAS and elsewhere grow and flourish in their careers.

Villa-Komaroff also shares her empathy with young students who may be struggling to find their way through the challenges of scientific training and their careers. It is natural, she says, for young scientists to doubt themselves in a world where there are clearly not enough tenured faculty positions for every doctoral student. She says that when she left a professorship at Harvard in 1996 to become Vice President for Research at Northwestern, she spent her first year asking herself if she had sacrificed her identity as a scientist. But then, she says, "I realized it didn't matter what I was doing. I am a scientist to my core. And that's not going to change whatever I do."

Villa-Komaroff says she always tells young scientists, "When you get your degree, it's not a degree of limitation." As scientists, "we identify problems and we figure out a way to solve them," she says. In her opinion, "a scientist fits in just about anywhere." In fact, she laughs, "We could use some more [scientists] in Congress and the Senate right now!"

A career usually looks like a straight path in retrospect, but Villa-Komaroff admits "I didn't always know exactly what I wanted to do... I never expected to move out of science into administration, I never expected to spend any significant time in a company. Those things came up and I was open to the possibilities." Reflecting a little, she says "for me it's been more like composing a life, rather than getting on a road and traveling down it."

Nicholas Weiler

Nicholas is a freelance science writer who earned his Ph.D. in the Neurosciences at Stanford University. He currently works at Worldview Stanford, developing new models for online science education.

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