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Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff - Biologist
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My father’s parents left Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. A family story says that my grandfather was almost killed by Pancho Villa’s soldiers. However, when my grandfather told Pancho Villa that his name was Villa too, Pancho Villa let him go and said, ”Go to that new country and have lots of sons.” My grandparents had nine sons and three daughters. My mother’s family had been in Arizona and New Mexico for many generations. Her ancestors came from Spain with the conquistadors. One of my great, great, great, great grandfathers helped cure smallpox in Mexico. He would recruit orphans in Spain and then, one after another, vaccinate them on the ship to Mexico. Then he traveled to California, vaccinating people all the way.

I have three brothers and two sisters, all younger than me and I have over 100 first cousins and 16 nieces and nephews. I feel that I have always been very lucky. Although money was in short supply, we always had enough to eat, and lots of books. I became interested in science at an early age. My grandmother and mother influenced me. They both loved nature and plants. I also had an uncle who was a chemist. The most difficult thing about school was high school, where I was somewhat socially isolated.

I decided I had to go to college. It must be said that I flunked organic chemistry the first time I took it, but I got an ”A” the second time. Discipline, hard work, and getting help when you need it makes the difference between good grades and bad grades.

When I went to college, I thought I was going to be a chemist. I had read a story about Hans Seyle in Reader’s Digest. The work he did on the physiology of stress sounded fantastic. I asked someone at the medical school what I should major in to become a physiologist and that person said chemistry. However, I took a fantastic class in developmental biology as a sophomore which convinced me to become a biology major.

I am the associate vice president for research at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. I am also a professor of neurology at Northwestern University Medical School. Before that, I was a research scientist for twenty years. I had the privilege and the pleasure of planning experiments that provided information about how living things work. The underlying interest in all the work I did was the question of how a single-celled organism becomes complex creature. As I got older, I found that I wanted to think about science in a more global way. It gave me as much satisfaction to help another scientist find out how to get answers as it did to do my own experiments. Now my job is to help create an environment where other scientists can more easily do their work. I love my job and did not imagine when I was a student that I might one day have a job like this.

The two most important things to me are first, that my job be interesting and challenging; and second, that by doing my job, I make a difference. I want to be in a position where I can make it possible for science to thrive.

Coming from a large Mexican-American family made me aware and sensitive to interactions with my peers, students, and others. As a scientist, it has helped in collaborations. I think it is the basis of my strong feeling that students must be nurtured and encouraged. I believe that my background taught me the value of collaboration and competition.

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