At the age of nine, Lydia Villa knew she wanted to be a scientist. Now, Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff has done more than just become a scientist–she has become an award-winning researcher and role model for aspiring “STEMers,” making it clear that race and gender are barriers that can be broken when aspiring to become a prominent figure in science.
Born into a Mexican family in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Dr. Villa-Komaroff developed a love for science at a very young age through her uncle, who was a chemist, and her mother and grandmother who both loved nature and plants. Upon graduating high school in 1965, she attended the University of Washington in Seattle as a chemistry major. After being told that women did not belong in chemistry, she switched her major to biology.
Soon after, she moved to Washington D.C. in 1967 with her boyfriend Anthony Komaroff, who she later married in 1970. Dr. Villa-Komaroff applied to Johns Hopkins University to complete her undergraduate degree, but they were not accepting female students at the time, so she settled on their sister university Goucher College. She received a Bachelor of Science in biology and moved to Boston with her husband to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
At MIT, Dr. Villa-Komaroff completed graduate work in molecular biology. In 1973, she became a founding member of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, after realizing there were not many Chicanos and Native Americans in her field of study. After completing her PhD in cell biology in 1975, she moved on to Harvard University to conduct postdoctoral research in recombinant DNA technology. In 1977, she joined the insulin cloning team, and in 1978, she became the first author of a landmark report showing that bacteria could be induced to make proinsulin.
Later that year, she became a faculty professor at the University of Massachusetts Medial School, earning tenure after six years of teaching. Soon after, Dr. Villa-Komaroff decided to take her career to Harvard University, where she was reassured a lighter work load to allow more time for research.
In 1995, her research in insulin-related growth factors was featured on the PBS documentary “DNA Detectives.” In 1996, Dr. Villa-Komaroff served as Vice President for Research at Northwestern University and professor of neurology at Northwestern University Medical School, both in Chicago, Illinois. In 2003, she was appointed Vice President for Research and Chief Operating officer of the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 2005, she became chair on the board of a publically traded biotechnology company Transkaryotic Therapeutics, Inc. In 2011, she became a member of the governing board at the Massachusetts Life Science Center. Currently, she is the Chief Executive Officer and Director at Cytonome, Inc.
Many of the awards that Dr. Villa-Komaroff have received include a Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Award (1992), induction into the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Hall of Fame (1999), a National Hispanic Scientist of the Year Award from The Museum of Science and Industry (2008), an Honorary Degree from Regis College (2011), and an award for Women of Distinction from American Association of University Women (2013).