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.

 

 

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.