WOMEN IN SCIENCE: RITA LEVI MONTALCINI

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.

Ritalevimontalcini

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.

 

 

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BELIEVE IN YOURSELF, BELIEVE IN YOUR SCIENCE. HAPPY #AdaLovelaceDay

2000px-Ada_Lovelace.svg

Looking back through history, we see the wide range of advances in different scientific fields. However, these days there is still a very important point in science and technology that didn’t advance at the same speed and is one that we cannot afford to miss: I am talking about the recognition of the scientific work of many women researchers through science History. It is crucial to remember the role of these women and that is the reason why the scientific community choose Ada Lovelace as a symbol of the important role of women in science. Every year, on the second Tuesday of October, Ada Lovelace’s day is celebrated as an international celebration of women in science and technology. However, who was Ada Lovelace and why did she became the image that represents scientific women?

Ada Gordon (who later became Countess of Lovelace) was the only legitimate child of the writer Lord Byron. She was the first scientist to recognise the full potential of a “computing machine”. Thus she became the first computer programmer in history. Her mother gave her a strict childhood education of logical thinking, science and mathematics. Ada became fascinated with mechanisms and designing different types of machines, embracing that way the British Industrial Revolution. In 1833, Ada Lovelace helped develop a device called The Analytical Engine with Charles Babbage – “the father of computers”.

Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace

We can say that was the beginning of a crucial and important period in science, as that engine was the early predecessor of the modern computer! So now you start to get an idea of the crucial role that Ada Lovelace had in science and technology.

In 1842, she expanded these ideas on the use of machines through the manipulation of symbols; translating an article by Luigi Menabrea on the engine and adding an elaborate set of notes (entitled Notes). ‘Notes’ was the most elaborate and complete set of information which many experts consider to be the first computer program- that is, an algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine. Nowadays, because of her research on this topic she is often referred to as “the first computer programmer” as well as the inspiration behind (the well-known) Alan Turing’s work on first computer design around the 1940’s.

Ada died at the age of 36. However, as we can see, Ada was – and still is – an inspiration for many people, and for many women who want to pursue their careers in science. Her passion and vision for technology have made her a powerful symbol. She must be a clear example for many of us working in different scientific fields. She could be a key inspiration to make us understand we need to believe in ourselves and believe in our research. Of course, society still must change its perspective of female scientists and the role they deserve. But let’s start by thinking we can achieve what we want. Let’s be grateful to those who came before us, let’s recognise their hard work and let’s keep on fighting for our future and the future for other female scientists. Never forget your commitment to improve the system that has led to so many more opportunities for women in science today, and will lead to in the future.

About the Author
Margarita Segovia-Roldán (PhD) is an 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 the 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 is 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.

The Buzz about Bees

Pollination is the fertilisation of plants through transfer of pollen. Without pollination, plants would not be able to reproduce, and would quickly die out. It is a crucial process that most living things rely on, wholly or partially. Humans, for example, would be left with very little to farm and eat if all pollination were to cease.

Pollen transfer can be abiotic or biotic. The former refers to non-living mechanisms of transport, such as wind or rain. Biotic pollination is much more common, and occurs when insects, birds, bats (and other mammals like monkeys and squirrels) transfer pollen between plants.

With almost 20,000 known species, bees are perhaps one of the most recognisable and well-known pollinator insects. Studies estimate that one third of commercial crops are either entirely or partially pollinated by (and thus dependent on) bees. These include some of our most loved and economically important produce like broccoli, bell peppers, onions, beans, apples, cherries, peaches, strawberries, coffee, cotton and almonds. This was perfectly illustrated in the activity stand ‘What Happens When Bees Go Extinct?’ as part of the Food for the Future event hosted by the Sheffield British Science Association for the Sheffield Food Festival back in May.

Of the approximate 785 species that pollinate crop plants, the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the single most important one. Its wide dispersion and high populace mean that it pollinates the most crops of all species. Domesticated and kept by humans for around 5,000 years, records of beekeeping exist on the walls of ancient Egyptian monuments. This species is the most common of all seven honey bee species in the genus Apis, and is found on all continents bar Antarctica. This extreme distribution of A. mellifera around the globe is largely due to human activity. For example, migrants from Europe introduced the bee to North America in the 1600s.

Picture BeesThe Western honey bee, Apis mellifera

Despite its widespread range, the population of the Western honey bee has dramatically declined in the last decade or so. Research from Pennsylvania State University found that North American populations have been hit hard, as have the populations in several European countries such as Spain, France and Greece. From 2007-2013, it has been estimated that roughly ten million hives were lost. Given the bees’ significance to agriculture and local ecosystems, this is a worrying development for farmers and environmentalists alike. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is the leading cause of this decline.

CCD has existed throughout history in all regions where honey bees are domesticated, but has recently intensified. The disorder occurs when most or all of the worker bees in a hive disappear leaving only the queen bee, several nurses, and immature bees or larvae behind. Food supplies are usually plentiful. However, with an insufficient workforce, this supply simply cannot be maintained. Causes of CCD are unknown, though there are many factors thought to have some influence. Disease, pesticide use, a lack of genetic diversity, and migratory beekeeping are all potential contributors to CCD and bee death.

The parasitic mite Varroa destructor is perhaps the biggest pest to honeybees. The mite feeds on the blood of adult bees and pupae, and transmits diseases such as deformed wing virus. This virus leads to the exile or death of many bees within a hive. The mites are hard to get rid of and have very high reproductive rates so protecting bees can be quite difficult once mites attach. Fortunately, there are several ongoing studies looking into how to deal with the mites, so there may be hope for affected hives in the future.

Picture 1BeesVarroa mite on a honey bee

Neonicotinoids (the family of pesticides now the subject of bans heavy regulation and debates) have been shown to negatively affect honey bee hives and contribute to CCD. Queen bees exposed to neonicotinoids had a 60% survival rate compared to 80% of control queens as a recent 2015 study found. Another study concluded that honey bee immune systems are compromised by neonicotinoids making them more susceptible to diseases. In tandem with parasitic mites, this may affect hives even more. It is important to note, however, that there are still knowledge gaps regarding this subject. Research as to how, why and to what extent the pesticides affect A. mellifera is still ongoing.

Luckily, the plight of the honey bee (and other bee species whose populations are falling) has been covered extensively by the media in recent years and many people are trying to help the situation. A veritable fountain of information on how we can help save the bees has sprung up. From the Royal Horticultural Society to the RSPB, there are plenty of articles detailing which plants are best for bees, how to provide shelter and how to revive tired bees. What is also positive is the number of companies invested in helping bees too; from the National Trust to well-known supermarkets. Wildflower seeds (which you can get from Grow Wild UK) are very accessible and can easily be planted for a bee-friendly spot in the garden or window box.

There is hope for the bees yet, but it will take the concern, kindness and help of all of us all if we want the population of these buzzy pollinators to climb again.

About the Author
Helen Alford is an MSc Science Communication and BSc Biological Sciences graduate having studied at the Universities of Sheffield and Birmingham. She has got a particular interest in microbiology, immunology, mycology, and how they often overlap! She is passionate about science communication and is involved with a local radio show focused on science and technology (https://web.sheffieldlive.org/shows/the-live-science-radio-show/)