News Column

Breaking Barriers: World-Renowned Molecular Biologist Blazes New Trails

Jan. 7, 2009

Joshua Molina--Associate Editor, Hispanic Business Magazine

Lydia Villa-Komaroff, biology, hispanic scientist
Lydia Villa-Komaroff speaks after being honored at HB's 18th Annual Awards gala. Photo: Matt Graves.

Troubled by her low chemistry grades, a young girl by the name of Lydia Villa turned to her adviser at the University of Washington for some career direction.

She got it. But not in the way she expected.

"He turned to me and said, 'of course you are doing badly. Don't you know that women don't do well in chemistry'?" she recalled.

Puzzled and confused over the blunt comment, she changed her major to biology.

"It wasn't until several years later that I realized how inappropriate that comment was," she said.

But that misguided advice only served to motivate the New Mexico native into becoming one of the country's foremost and influential scientists.

In an extravagant ceremony with more than 700 people in attendance, Lydia Villa-Komaroff won Hispanic Business Media's Lifetime Achievement Award, at the 18th Annual Awards gala at the Millennium Hotel in Los Angeles.

The honor was in recognition of Ms. Villa-Komaroff's stream of scientific achievements.

Only the third Mexican-American woman to earn a doctorate in science from an American university, Ms. Villa-Komaroff has led or been part of teams that have made some revolutionary breakthroughs in molecular biology.
Most notably, Ms. Villa-Komaroff set the scientific world on fire in 1978 when she showed how bacteria could make insulin, an amazing breakthrough that has assisted diabetes patients around the globe.

The discovery launched her career into the scientific heights and helped erase a stigma that she had long sought to eliminate.

"If you ask a child to imagine a scientist, the first thing they think of is a bald white man with glasses in a white coat," Ms. Villa-Komaroff said. "Scientists come in all shapes, colors and sizes."

The eldest of six children, Ms. Villa-Komaroff is currently CEO of Cytonome, a biotechnology company building the first optical human cell sorter for therapeutic use, particularly for bone-marrow transplants. One of the biggest challenges with bone-marrow transplants is that the body's immune system often rejects the new marrow. The new cell sorter will separate the bad cells that attack one another from the good ones, which assist in the transplant.

"This will be huge in the field," Ms. Villa-Komaroff said.

The 61-year-old has held several titles during her illustrious career. She holds a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She has held appointments at MIT, Harvard University, University of Massachusetts Medical School and Harvard Medical School, throughout her 20-year research career.

But some of her most meaningful work, she said, was as the founder of the Society for the Advancement of Chicano and Native Americans in Science. She has continued to seek and recruit Hispanics into the sciences and encourage students to complete their degrees.

"Every now and then someone will come up to me and say 'I am in graduate school because of a talk I heard' " Ms. Villa-Komaroff said, "and that is very, very rewarding."

To view a photo gallery featuring 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award winner Lydia Villa-Komaroff, and other luminaries in attendance at Hispanic Business Media's EOY awards ceremony, visit

Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine and, Copyright (c) 2008 All Rights Reserved.

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