Biotech Leader Inspires Students at Emerging Researchers Conference

Women and minority researchers still struggle against bias, but they can overcome some obstacles with the help of good mentors, said pioneering molecular biologist Lydia Villa-Komaroff.
Lydia Villa-Komaroff, chief scientific officer at CytonomeST, spoke at the 2014 Emerging Researchers National Conference in Washington, D.C. | Carla Schaffer/AAAS

As a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, molecular biologist Lydia Villa-Komaroff worked on a project using bacteria to make synthetic mammalian insulin. When she realized the technique was working, she hurried down the hall to tell others.

"'I have the most wonderful news!'" she recalled saying to a senior male researcher who was familiar with the work. "He responded, 'You're pregnant!'"

"Which tells you a little bit about women in science as well as minorities in science," Villa-Komaroff concluded. "There are preconceptions."

Villa-Komaroff next told her former graduate advisor, Nobel Laureate and former AAAS president David Baltimore, who "immediately got it. He just thought a little bit differently," she said.

Bacteria-made insulin became the first big application of recombinant DNA technology, and Villa-Komaroff described the discovery as one of the highlights of her career. The Mexican-American researcher told the anecdote during a plenary talk at the Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM, held 20-22 February in Washington D.C. Nearly 1,000 participants, including approximately 650 undergraduate and graduate students in science, technology, math or engineering (STEM), attended the meeting, which is hosted by AAAS and the National Science Foundation.

The ERN conference "is designed to showcase the work and achievements of scientists, engineers and mathematicians who are from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM, including African Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians, Alaskan Natives/Native Hawaiians, and persons with disabilities," said Yolanda S. George, deputy director for AAAS Education and Human Resources Programs. "It also provides a broader understanding of the breadth of STEM research that is being conducted around the world, as well as the benefits of STEM research and innovations to society."

Villa-Komaroff offered several examples of such innovations in her talk. She is currently the chief scientific officer at CytonomeST, a Boston-based company working to produce novel, high-throughput cell sorters, one of which can be used to isolate human stem cells or cancer cells, for example. She has previously held research and teaching positions at Harvard, MIT, the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Harvard Medical School. She has also served as vice president for research at both Northwestern University and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, where she also served as chief operating officer.

While her success as a scientist has been proven, Villa-Komaroff had to break new ground to get there. When she earned a Ph.D. in cell biology from MIT in 1975, she was only the fourth Mexican-American woman to earn a doctoral degree in a natural science field. Even now, despite increases in numbers of minorities in the sciences in graduate school and postdoctoral positions, they are still underrepresented within the faculty.

Finding success as a scientist can be especially difficult for women who are also minorities, since they face double biases, Villa-Komaroff said. "Almost every talented scientist feels inadequate at some point," she said. "I think we, women and minorities, are harder on ourselves."

To combat these continuing challenges, people need to be aware of their unconscious biases, Villa-Komaroff said. "It's not just white men who stereotype," she said, "We all do it. Our survival depended on making snap decisions about others."

Simple awareness of our biases can be enough to overcome them, she said, and bias-awareness training for people who make decisions about hiring faculty can make a huge difference. For example, the University of Michigan made such training a requirement for all faculty search committee members and within a decade significantly increased its numbers of minority and women faculty, Villa-Komaroff said.

She also advised students to develop mentors and keep good relations with co-workers. "My mentors have for the most part been white men," she said. "You have to seek them out." Villa-Komaroff was also helped throughout her career by people with whom she had previously worked. "Those people you meet as you progress through your training will come back into your professional life," she said.

Villa-Komaroff credits her "people skills" and assertiveness to having been the oldest of six children. "If you wanted to be noticed, you had to put yourself up front," she said. "I always aimed higher than felt comfortable." She decided to become a scientist when she was nine years old, she said, after having some exposure to science through her uncle, who was a chemist. Her Mexican-American family was also unusual because her parents, both teachers, had attended college and expected their children would as well, she said.

"It's so important to have role models," Villa-Komaroff said. Without them, "children will close doors that they don't even know are there."

In 1973 at a science conference during graduate school, she realized just how underrepresented women and minorities were when she attended a meeting of Mexican-American and Native American scientists and learned that the group of fewer than 20 individuals were the only Mexican-American and Native American Ph.D.-level scientists in the country. The group decided they needed to do something to support upcoming scientists and founded SACNAS (originally called the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science), in which Villa-Komaroffstill participates.

"Science is hard, but so is life, and there are jobs for people who are educated" in STEM, Villa-Komaroff told students. A Ph.D. degree is frequently viewed as an indication that you know how to solve problems and pick the right problems, she said. And, "it's a whole lot better to be in control of your destiny than be told what to do."

About 580 students gave oral or poster presentations about their own research, including Anita Martinez, an undergraduate student in industrial engineering at New Mexico State University. Martinez, a first-time ERN attendee, said Villa-Komaroff's success had inspired her. Martinez said she also appreciated some of Villa-Komaroff's parting advice to attendees: Develop self-awareness, and don't fear your weaknesses, but be aware of them so you can compensate for them.