MAKERS Profile

Lydia Villa-Komaroff

Molecular Biologist

In this video

Lydia Villa-Komaroff on wanting to be a scientist, defying prejudices as a young Latina, and her breakthrough in diabetes research.
Lydia Villa-Komarrof's decision to pursue a career in science was decidedly unconventional for Mexican American upbringing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "Traditionally, Hispanic women are not socialized to believe they can earn a living, much less be scientists,” she has said. But her parents encouraged her to follow her dreams, and by age nine, she knew her future was as a scientist. In 1965, she enrolled in college as a chemistry major, but after an advisor told Villa-Komaroff that women did not belong in chemistry, she switched majors, settling on biology. After college, she was accepted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and became the third Mexican-American woman to earn a science Ph.D. in the U.S. During her 20-year research career, she has held positions at MIT, Harvard University, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Harvard Medical School, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, and Children's Hospital in Boston. Her most memorable discovery came in 1978, when she was the lead author of a landmark paper demonstrating how bacterial cells could be used to generate insulin. The work was a major scientific innovation in DNA technology and protein synthesis, and she was awarded with two patents.   Later in her career, Dr. Villa-Komaroff moved into science administration and the private bio-tech world where she now serves as Chief Scientific Officer and a Board member of Cytonome/ST. She has served on committees for the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Academies of Science and Engineering. Among other honors, she has been recognized by election to the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Hall of Fame and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by Hispanic Business Magazine. She is deeply committed to the recruitment and retention of minorities and women in science. She is a founding member of SACNAS, the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, and has served as a board member and vice president.  

More From Lydia

The Promise of Ferraro
Villa-Komaroff speaks about the profound effect the candidacy of Geraldine Ferraro had on her and her sense of possiblity.

Women's Leadership Style
Women do lead differently than men and that's a good thing. Villa-Komaroff says it is even influencing men's leadership style. 

A Minority Woman
Villa-Komaroff reflects on her identity as an outsider, as a woman of color first and foremost.

Choosing Not to Have Kids
Villa-Komaroff speaks about her and husband's decision to not have children.

Willing to Speak Up
Villa-Komaroff on how she learned that If you just have the courage to take a stand, even if it's an act, you can bring about real change.

Without Role Models
A day with her young nephew showed Villa-Komaroff the power of seeing someone who looks like you in every profession.

Subtle Discouragement
Villa-Komaroff addresses Larry Summers' comment about women's capacity in math and science and the insidious signals it sends.

Price of Exclusion
Villa-Komaroff discusses the historic exclusion of women and minorites from science and the unsustainable toll it takes on the field.

MIT Boys' Club
Villa-Komaroff discusses the unfriendliness towards women present in the field of molecular biology and at MIT.

Applying to MIT
Villa-Komaroff's insecurities nearly cost her the opportunity to attend MIT.

Blind to Prejudice
Villa-Komaroff reflects on her being oblivious to the clear prejudices she faced as a woman of color in college and throughout her career.

Back to School Mom
Villa-Komaroff's parents were ahead of their time and her mother's decision to return to school set a powerful example.