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Mexican-American Biologist Speaks On Science’s Continued Diversity Problem

Photo credit: Courtesy Lydia Villa-Komaroff

Molecular biologist Lydia Villa-Komaroff in an undated photo.

Mexican-American Biologist Speaks On Science's Continued Diversity Problem

GUEST:

Lydia Villa-Komaroff, founding member, Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science

Transcript

It wasn't that long ago that a science professor could easily tell a struggling female student that women just don't belong in chemistry.

As an undergraduate at the University of Washington in the 1960s, Lydia Villa-Komaroff was determined to be a chemist, but sought help from her advisor.

“Well of course you’re having difficulties," the professor said, according to Villa-Komaroff. "Women don’t belong in chemistry.”

That prompted Villa-Komaroff to eventually switch majors to biology, leading her to a distinguished career as a molecular biologist. She helped discover how to make synthetic insulin in 1978.

She encountered racial prejudices as well. Another professor once gave a paper Villa-Komaroff had written a D, but changed it to an A after she spoke with him in person.

"It took me years to realize he gave me a D because I had handwritten the paper and my last name was Villa," she said. "Like many people, he made an assumption about what I could do based on what I looked like."

Villa-Komaroff found a dearth of fellow Mexican-Americans in graduate school, especially Mexican-American women. When she received her Ph.D. in 1975, she was one of the first Mexican-American women in the country with a doctorate in a scientific field. While STEM education has seen significant improvement, the disparity persists. The issue, according to Villa-Komaroff, is cultural.

"People often ask me, 'What was your biggest obstacle?' The answer for me really is, it’s always been me," she said. "I think we often are our own biggest problems. We undersell ourselves, we second-guess ourselves. And our culture reinforces that. In American culture, we are acculturated to the idea that some people are more capable than others."

Villa-Komaroff is speaking Thursday night at Cal State San Marcos in honor of César Chávez Day. She joined KPBS Midday Edition on Thursday to discuss how scientific fields can improve diversity.

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