When Lydia Villa-Komaroff was nine years old, she knew she wanted to be a scientist. What she didn't know was that she was destined to become one of the most influential role models in the U.S. Hispanic community. Ms. Villa-Komaroff, who was only the third Mexican-American woman to gain a Ph.D. in science from an American university, has inspired thousands of Hispanic students nationwide.
After working in research for 20 years, during which she worked with Nobel Laureate Walter Gilbert's team that discovered bacteria could be manipulated to produce insulin, Ms. Villa-Komaroff left the academy to join the business sector. She is currently CEO of Cytonome, a biotechnology company building the first optical human cell sorter for therapeutic use.
Ms. Villa-Komaroff nonetheless considers her work with minority students as her greatest achievement outside the laboratory. She likes igniting passion for education and science in young minds.
She travels the country, as part of her work, talking to students of all ages, from kindergartners to graduate students. "I use my work as a spring board to science in general," she explained. "I also use my own path and life story as an example of how they might proceed."
"Children need to be able to envision themselves [in a career]," she said. "Having role models is extremely important."
'Scientist Of The Year'
Students listen to her because when it comes to science, she projects authority. She was recently selected as the 2008 National Hispanic Scientist of the Year by The Museum of Science & Industry for promoting "a greater public understanding of science and motivating an interest in science among today's youth."
While growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, she became fascinated with science. Her parents, both teachers, nurtured her interest by buying encyclopedias.
A founding member of the Society for the Advancement of Chicano and Native Americans in Science, Ms. Villa-Komaroff said that when she saw only six students and 15 faculty members attend the initial meeting in 1973, "It was clear that outreach and mentoring were part of what I had to do."
Hispanic Science Interest Growing
Her work recruiting Hispanics into the sciences includes supporting students in completing their degrees. She holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and credits mentors she found with keeping her on track. "That's why mentoring is important to me," said Ms. Villa-Komaroff. "It's also the inevitable consequence of being the eldest in a family of six kids." One of her chief advisors was Mr. Gilbert, who led her into the biotechnology business.
Ms. Villa-Komaroff is optimistic about the future. "More Hispanics students are expressing an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics," she said. "We continue to be seriously under-represented in these very satisfying fields, especially in positions of influence, ... but as more women and minorities get into the field, things will get better."
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