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The Third Mexican-American Ph.D. in United States History: Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

Lydia Villa-Komaroff. Photo Credit: Women, Art & Technology

This month we highlight inspiring leaders whose excellence, cultural reverence and life histories serve as inspirations, pathways and representation of historically underrepresented BIPOC in STEM.


On August 7th, 1947 Villa-Komaroff was born the eldest of 6 children in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her parents left Mexico during the Mexican Revolution and recall stories of how her grandfather was nearly killed by Pancho Villa soldiers, but was let go on account of his last name. Pancho Villa, a revolutionary hero, and his soldiers initially rose to power during the Mexican Revolution in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico due to socioeconomic mistreatment and high cost of food.

Her family's generational history is long-standing in Arizona and New Mexico and her ancestors reign from Spain and the conquistadors. In particular, one ancestor helped cure smallpox in Mexico. He recruited Spanish orphans and vaccinated them as they travelled to Mexico and continued to vaccinated people during his travels from to California.

Pancho Villa's army in Mexico (1916). Photo Credit: Musgrave

Collection: Negative Number 065498.

Initially, Villa-Komaroff majored in chemistry at the University of Washington but switched majors when her advisor told her that "girls do not belong in chemistry". She studied biology at Goucher College and eventually applied to Johns Hopkins University, but she was declined an offer due to her gender. In 1975, she earned a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in molecular and cellular biology, where she focused on understanding how RNA produces proteins in poliovirus. She later conducted a post-doc at Harvard, studying recombinant DNA technology. After a ban on conducting recombination research was lifted in the city of Cambridge, she became a postdoctoral fellow at the Nobel Laureate Walter Gilbert laboratory and discovered that induced bacteria can make proinsulin, contributing to the biotechnology industry of synthesizing mammalian hormone medicine. This discovery did not come about without hardships, however. The ban forced her to move to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and she spent a year conducting experiments that failed.

Photo Credit: Hispanic Engineer & Information Technology, 2020

Villa-Komaroff later served as the vice president for research at Northwestern University in 1996 and in 2003, became the vice president for Research and Chief Operating Officer of the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her research along with other scientists led to the discovery of proteins that help develop vision in young animals, including cats and their vision responses when exposed to light and darkness.

Villa-Komaroff and her laboratory discovered the Gap-43 protein, a nervous tissue-specific cytoplasmic protein that primarily acts in the mammalian development of neurites (neuron cell body projections) formation, regeneration and plasticity important for axon function. In Alzheimer's disease research with Bruce Yankner, a postdoctoral fellow in her laboratory at the time, helped discover molecule amyloid beta, which causes neuron brain cell degeneration. This research revealed that amyloid precursor proteins can kill neurons and has improved research into preventing and treating Alzheimer's disease.


Villa-Komaroff has held numerous prestigious positions ranging from STEM, economic, educational and cultural frameworks. She's is a founding member and was a Board member and vice president of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), who "is an inclusive organization dedicated to fostering the success of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans, from college students to professionals, in attaining advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership in STEM." She was also granted U.S. Patent 4.411.994 for "Protein Synthesis" (1978) and U.S. Patent 4,565,785 for "Recombinant DNA" (1983).

In an interview conducted by Nicholas Weiler, a freelance writer who earned his Ph.D. in Neurosciences at Stanford University, Weiler asked Villa-Komaroff about her career path and how she has achieved her goals over the years. Villa-Komaroff responded, “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... for me it’s been more like composing a life, rather than getting on a road and traveling down it.”

Lydia Villa-Komaroff High School Trip to Los Alamos. Image via Lydia Villa-Komaroff. (Amy Poehler's Smart Girls)

Villa-Komaroff believes her Mexican-American family instilled in her an understanding of valuing collaboration and competition, which has also helped her improve her interpersonal communication with others. Through this work, she believes students should be nurtured and encouraged.

We couldn't agree more. Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff's story is inspirational and her journey into STEM has paved a way for Mexican-Americans and many BIPOC.

For more information on Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff:

Molina J. (7 Jan 2009). "Breaking Barriers: World-Renowned Molecular Biologist Blazes New Trails". Hispanic Business. Archived from the original on 11 March 2014.

Villa-Komaroff to Present SDI and Five Colleges Distinguished Lecture". University of Massachusetts Amherst. 27 Mar 2014.

Yankner, BA; Benowitz, LI; Villa-Komaroff, L; Neve, RL (1990). "Transfection of the human GAP-43 gene in PC12 cells: effects on neurite outgrowth and regeneration". Mol Brain Res. 7 (1): 39–44. doi:10.1016/0169-328x(90)90071-k. PMID2153893.

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