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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, but 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 ancestors helped cure smallpox in Mexico. He would recruit orphans in Spain to go to the ”new country” and then one after another, vaccinate them on the ship to Mexico. Then he traveled from Mexico to California, vaccinating people along 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. As a child, money was always in short supply, but we always had enough to eat, and lots of books. I became interested in science at an early age. I was influenced by my uncle, who was a chemist, and my mother and grandmother who both loved nature and plants. My parents both encouraged reading and learning. 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 he suggested chemistry. I had a hard time in freshman chemistry, and when I went to my advisor, he said that women didn’t belong in chemistry! Fortunately, I took a great class in developmental biology as a college sophomore, and convinced me to become a biology major.

I had always loved school, but in high school I was somewhat socially isolated. I didn’t become interested in dating until I was in college. In college, two things happened. First, I discovered the delights of social life, and second, I discovered college was not all I expected. I thought that all the classes would be interesting and all the professors fascinating. Of course, neither was true. I was an ”A” student in high school, but I started off college with very checkered grades. It must be said that I flunked organic chemistry the first time, but I got an ”A” when I took it again. For me, and I suspect for many others, the difficulty of the material is not what makes the difference between good and bad grades. Rather, it is discipline, hard work, and getting help when you need it that helps you get good grades.

Several of my professors in college said that I could be good at doing science. Going to graduate school also seemed like the natural next step. I had worked at different types of jobs, and I knew that I did not want to spend my time in an unchallenging work environment. By the time I had gotten to the end of my undergraduate years, working in a lab seemed like a wonderful life.

I believe that growing up in a large Mexican-American family taught me the value of collaboration and competition. Furthermore, my cultural background has made me more aware and sensitive to interpersonal 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.

The two most important things to me are first, that my job be interesting and challenging; and second, by doing my job, I make a difference. I want to be in a position where I can make it possible for exciting science to thrive, and as the associate vice president for research at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, I feel that I am in a good position to meet my goals. I am also 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 things work. The underlying interest in all the work I did was the question of how a single celled organism becomes a 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 this satisfying and enjoyable.

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