By Margarita Segovia-Roldán
Again, every 11th of February, we are happy to celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This is a day created in order to achieve full and equal access to, and participation in science for women and girls. Thanks to this day, we can also recognise the value that scientific women bring to science and the society and help to make their careers more visible. However, we still have a long way to go to bring them the recognition they deserve. By celebrating this international day, we showcase to society the important scientific work that women contribute to.
The scientific community often uses Ada Lovelace as an icon for women in science and technology. However, there are plenty of others we can name. For instance, Rita Levi-Montalcini.
Rita Levi-Montalcini was an Italian scientist honoured for her work in neurobiology. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1986) jointly with her colleague Stanley Cohen for the discovery of the nerve growth factor (NGF). From 2001 until her death, she also served in the Italian Senate as a Senator for Life. This honour was given due to her significant scientific contributions. On the 22 April 2009, she reached the age of 100 and at the time of her death, she was the oldest living Nobel laureate.
Rita’s father (a mathematician and electrical engineer) was against his daughter attending university as it would interfere with her future roles as wife and mother. On the other hand, Rita’s mother encouraged her to talk with her father about her intention to study medicine. At age 20, Levi-Montalcini decided that she wanted a life different from the one imagined for every Victorian woman; she wanted to go to medical school and study to be a doctor (Biography: “In Praise of Imperfection”). Finally, she started her career in Turin in 1930, where she became enamoured with the process of neurogenesis. Even as a Jewish woman and scientist in the time of Mussolini and Hitler, Levi-Montalcini was determined to continue her research. Her perseverance made her build a little laboratory in her own bedroom and she sent research manuscripts to Belgium to be published; publishing was impossible for her due to World War II. Rita finally split her job between the USA and Italy developing her research as a Full Professor in 1958 to 1977 at Washington University and in her second lab in Rome (1962).
A key discovery she made during her time in the United States was developing an in-vitro culture technique to grow neurons in a dish. With Stanley Cohen, Levi-Montalcini discovered that peripheral tissues secrete a factor that directly influences neuronal survival in mammals. Their discovery was published in 1960, and they termed the substance “nerve growth factor,” or NGF. NGF was only the first of an entire class of chemotactic factors (neurotrophins) which promote the growth and survival of specific subsets of neurons, amongst other functions. As the field of molecular neuroscience progressed, it became evident that neurotrophins also have roles in the adult brain. They both received the Nobel prize highlighting the importance of their work, and the immeasurable effects it has had on other multiple fields of scientific research.
We can now understand how Rita Levi-Montalcini’s perseverance and passion for science made her one of the most important women in science from the 20th century leading her to become an inspiration for many other scientists all over the world. That way we can say that she is a wonderful example of the role of women in science during the past few centuries. We need to keep on making scientific women more visible. This way we recognise their hard work and the contributions they make to science, just as Rita did.
About the Author
Margarita Segovia-Roldán (PhD) is a neuroscientist and electrophysiologist who studied biology at the University of Seville (Spain). She has developed her scientific career in the UK through her work at University College London (UCL) and the University of Sheffield. She is passionate about science communication and is involved with the British Science Association (BSA) Sheffield branch (where she was also one of its founder members). She is also involved in the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK (SRUK), where she develops different public engagement activities as #CineScience and she collaborates on the #SRUKBlog.