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Lydia Villa-Komaroff

MAKERS Profile

Molecular Biologist

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Lydia Villa-Komaroff on wanting to be a scientist, defying prejudices as a young Latina, and her breakthrough in diabetes research.

Lydia's Biography

Cause of Choice: Science Club for Girls and SACNAS
Advice to Young Women: “It is just as hard to do a hard career as an easy career so go for that which is interesting.”
Biggest Influence Never Met: Octavio Paz through his  book The Labyrinth of Solitude
Proudest Accomplishments: "The insulin work. The company I am involved in now which I am proud to have saved, and I think its product will be very important medically. And the people I’ve taught."

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.  

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